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Originally published Friday, February 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Some friction in Bush, Putin talks

President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to show unity yesterday, but their blunt and sometimes testy exchanges over Putin's commitment to democracy showed that relations between the two remained sensitive.

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to show unity yesterday, but their blunt and sometimes testy exchanges over Putin's commitment to democracy showed that relations between the two remained sensitive, even as they cut a new deal to restrict nuclear weapons and agreed to maintain their political partnership.

Putin, saying some lack "full knowledge" and "full understanding" of events in his country, said Russia remains committed to democracy, but it "should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people."

Declaring that democracies need the rule of law, protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition, Bush said: "I was able to share my concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles."

"I did so in a constructive and friendly way," he added.

Putin said he would "pay due attention" to some of Bush's suggestions.

"Some other ideas," he added, winking at Bush, "I will not comment on."

Meeting in a medieval castle overlooking the icy Danube River, the two presidents came together amid global worry that Putin is becoming more of an autocrat than a democrat.

Bush, meanwhile, is under some pressure to prove that his sweeping call for global liberty applies to friends like Russia and Saudi Arabia as much as to enemies like Iran and North Korea.

Friendship reaffirmed

While the leaders of former Cold War rivals reaffirmed their friendship, signs of tension permeated the castle's ancient walls. Bush cited "frank discussions;" earlier this week, a Bush aide called the term "frank" a euphemism for things not going so well.

For example: Bush and Putin agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon but disagreed about the purposes of Iran's nuclear-energy program — one Russia is assisting.

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The two leaders were also unable to resolve the question of Russian missile sales to Syria.

Whatever their problems, however, Bush and Putin probably won't see a political divorce anytime soon, a variety of analysts said — they want too much from either other.

"Bush has a heavy investment publicly in Putin," said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow in foreign-policy studies at The Brookings Institution. "The United States has very few levers to pressure Russia into changing its behavior."

The two men trumpeted their new security agreement designed to keep nuclear weapons away from terrorists. The deal would upgrade security at Russian nuclear plants and develop new procedures for responding to possible attacks.

Another agreement places new restrictions on shoulder-fired missiles. In addition, Bush said he would continue to support Russian entry into the World Trade Organization, and accepted a May 9 invitation to visit Moscow for the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union's final victory over Nazi Germany.

Citing recent democratic developments in the former Soviet Union, Bush lauded the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

"And now, a Purple Revolution in Iraq," he added, referring to the ink in which Iraqis dipped their fingers as proof of voting.

There are signs the relationship is changing since their first meeting in 2001, when Bush said he looked into Putin's eyes and got "a sense of his soul."

In recent years, the Putin government has arrested prominent media and business people in Russia. He and allies said they violated the law; skeptics see the arrests and other harassment as efforts to silence or intimidate critics or potential rivals.

War in Chechnya

The Russian war against Chechnya has drawn international ire. Putin said that, like the United States, he is fighting terrorism, including last year's school standoff that ended in the deaths of hundreds of children.

Bush has been among those who criticized Russia for interfering with elections in former Soviet satellites. For his part, Putin accused the United States and other westerners of meddling in last year's disputed vote in Ukraine.

Putin said, "any kind of turn towards totalitarianism for Russia would be impossible" because the people have accepted democracy — "this is our final choice, and we have no way back."

Critics have noted that regional governors in Russia will now be appointed, not elected. Putin said regional parliaments must ratify those leaders, comparing it to the Electoral College in American elections.

"It is not considered undemocratic, is it?" he asked.

Putin was less critical of the United States than members of the Russia press delegation, one of whom grilled Bush about post-Sept. 11 security powers granted by the Patriot Act. Another questioned whether the press in the United States is truly free, asking: "Why don't you talk a lot about violations of the rights of journalists in the United States?"

Bush said he didn't know what journalists the reporter was referring to, and the U.S. media constantly hold him accountable.

"I live in a transparent country," Bush also said. "I live in a country where decisions made by government are wide open."

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