President George Bush subjected Russia's Vladimir Putin to a public lecture on the fundamentals of democracy yesterday, injecting a chill into a relationship that has - until now - been characterised by bonhomie.
Meeting in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, Mr Bush emerged from a three-hour meeting with the Russian President joking and smiling and full of warm words. But his frequent references to "Vladimir" and the "fella" were peppered with targeted criticism of the state of democracy in Russia with which the more hawkish members of his administration are said to have lost patience.
President George W. Bush gestures toward Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference at Bratislava Castle in Slovakia, February 24, 2005. REUTERS/Larry Downing
An unsmiling, visibly irritated Mr Putin squirmed as he listened to Mr Bush tell a press conference he had been told that Washington had "concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling" the "universal principles" of democracy. "Democracies always reflect a country's customs and culture, and I know that," Mr Bush said. "Yet democracies have certain things in common; they have a rule of law, and protection of minorities, a free press, and a viable political opposition."
Mr Putin had wanted to talk about the two countries' joint efforts to combat terrorism but was forced instead to defend his domestic reforms and his commitment to democracy.
For a man who is seldom subjected to such face-to-face criticism and is famously cool under pressure, he looked at times as if he was about to lose his composure. "I respect some of his [Mr Bush's ideas] a lot and take them into account. Others I won't. [Such issues] should not be pushed to the foreground. New problems should not be created that could jeopardise our relationship. We want to develop the relationship."
Russian officials tried to play down the tension by suggesting the two men's relationship had matured to a level where they could now tell each other things they did not want to hear.
The two men could not, however, have looked more different.
Mr Bush looked satisfied that he had obliged Mr Putin to justify his views on democracy and claimed a statement from the Russian leader vowing not to roll it back was the meeting's most important moment.
Mr Putin said: "Russia chose democracy 14 years ago without any outside pressure. It made this choice for itself, in its own interests and for its people and its citizens. It was a definitive choice and there is no turning back." A return to totalitarianism was impossible, he added.
However he indulged in none of the informal small talk beloved of Mr Bush and looked relieved to exit the stage with a stiff handshake, his face taut with pressure. In Russian official circles, the meeting is likely to be seen as a humiliation.
Mr Bush also used an earlier speech to revel in the success of revolutions in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, revolutions which Moscow opposed. Mr Bush said he hoped for similar progress in Belarus and Moldova. Agreements did emerge. These were to prevent Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, to safeguard nuclear facilities in both countries, to regulate the sale of shoulder-fired missiles and to accelerate Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation.
© 2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd