BUSAN, South Korea, AP -Masking differences with public smiles and friendly chitchat, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday addressed U.S. concerns over Kremlin backsliding on democracy in their private talks.
Putin is often criticized in the West for rolling back democratic progress by imposing state control of national broadcasters, scrapping elections for regional governors, and dismantling the Yukos oil company giant after its former CEO opposed the Russian leader.
The latest concern stems from the introduction of legislation last week in Russia”s State Duma by members of Putin”s party that would keep foreign non-governmental organizations from operating offices in Russia and deny foreign funds to Russian organizations that engage in certain political activities.
Two former vice presidential candidates, Republican Jack Kemp and Democrat John Edwards, had urged Bush to bring up the issue with Putin during their meeting on the sidelines of the annual conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that got underway Friday in this port city.
"If this proposal comes into force, the government will clearly have in its hands the authority to close down public organizations simply because it finds their views and activities inconvenient," Kemp and Edwards wrote Bush. They are co-chairmen of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on Russia.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush raised the matter with Putin. But, Bartlett said the U.S. worries about Putin”s recent crackdowns are "well known" and that the issue did not dominate the leaders” hourlong session.
Instead, the emphasis was on their shared fight against terrorism, Moscow”s aspiration to joint the World Trade Organization by the end of the year, and the campaigns to stop progress toward nuclear arms in both North and Iran. Though the leaders have long-running differences over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Bush saluted Putin for sending supplies to Iraqi security forces, Bartlett said.
On Iran, Putin has refused to support Bush”s eagerness to go to the U.N. Security Council with suspicions Iran is trying to build a nuclear arsenal. Over U.S. objections, Russia is building a nuclear reactor for a power plant in Iran and says it believes Iran”s assurances the plant is for civilian energy use alone.
But Bush thanked Putin for helping the negotiations with Iran by pledging that any enrichment of uranium would take place in Russia rather than in Iran and that spent fuel rods from the Iranian plant would be sent back to Russia, Bartlett said. Those negotiations are being led by Britain, Germany and France. Putin, likewise, pledged support for the diplomatic efforts to make sure Iran does not develop nuclear arms, he said.
The pace of democratic progress under Putin”s leadership has increasingly become a sour note in Bush”s meetings with his Russian counterpart, clouding a relationship that quickly moved to a first-name basis and became stronger after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
But appearing in a hotel suite for their fifth meeting of the year, the pair projected only friendly relations. "Hey Vladimir. How are you? Looking good," Bush said, tapping the Russian on the back.
"The dynamic in the room was very positive, very loose," Bartlett said. "There was a lot of laughing, a lot of joking."
As Bush and Putin projected solidarity, a crack arose in the united front presented a day earlier by the president and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. Catching the White House by surprise, South Korea announced Friday it will bring home next year about a third of its 3,200 troops in Iraq.
National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said no notice had been given to the Bush administration on an issue — South Korea”s contributions to the military coalition in Iraq — that had been a positive topic of discussion in Bush and Roh”s talks Thursday. South Korea”s is the third largest contingent on the coalition, after the U.S. and British components.
At the APEC meetings, the 21 leaders were focusing on two items important to Bush. The leaders were hoping to make a strong statement capitalizing on their combined clout — the countries represent nearly half of global trade — and reinvigorating stalled talks on a worldwide free-trade pact. New World Trade Organization talks are set for next month in Hong Kong.
They also were pledging united efforts to reduce the risk of a global flu pandemic.
Elsewhere in Busan, thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully, chanting slogans and carrying signs reading "Get rid of APEC" and "Let”s get Bush" while tens of thousands of police and military forces guarded the city.
Bush was to attend the final APEC sessions Saturday, meet separately with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and then fly to Osan Air Base south of Seoul to speak to U.S. troops. Later in the weekend, he was to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing and stop in Mongolia en route back to Washington on Monday.