Saturday, July 15, 2006

Bush, Putin Call for Halt in Middle East Violence

Peter Baker and Peter Finn, The Washington Post:
President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin presented a united front Saturday in calling for a halt to violence in the Middle East, but their public show of solidarity barely masked a series of edgy disagreements over democracy, trade and Iran.

Meeting separately before other leaders arrived for the Group of Eight summit, Bush and Putin agreed that fighting in Israel and Lebanon poses a grave danger but not on how to stop it. Bush failed to win Putin's support for sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. And round-the-clock talks to admit Russia into the World Trade Organization broke without a deal. READ MORE

The undercurrent of tension became evident by the end of a polite but reserved joint news conference. Despite pressure at home and abroad, Bush went out of his way to avoid publicly criticizing Putin for stifling internal dissent, saying he did not want to lecture Russia. His only public comments on Russian democracy were to express understanding for Putin's viewpoint on the subject and to delicately nudge him to expand freedom.

"I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq, where there's a free press and free religion," Bush said, "and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same thing."

Putin seized on that remark. "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly," he said, provoking laughter from the Russian side.

Bush seemed caught off guard. "Just wait," he replied softly, maintaining a strained smile.

The Putin jibe highlighted what has been perhaps Bush's most anticipated meeting with a foreign leader all year, a meeting that focused worldwide attention on the state of Russia nearly 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Russia hosts its first G-8 summit, it is showcasing its economic and diplomatic resurgence but critics said it should not lead a group of democracies when the Kremlin has taken over independent television, imprisoned political opponents, eliminated election of governors and restricted opposition parties.

The situation led to months of heated debate in Washington and European capitals. Bush brushed off calls to boycott the summit and had Vice President Cheney express U.S. concerns about Russian democracy in a tough speech two months ago, then resolved to be a good guest this weekend.

To demonstrate what Bush called a "very good" U.S.-Russian relationship, the two sides reached two nuclear agreements Saturday. The more significant, reported before the summit, will open the door to civilian nuclear cooperation between the countries for the first time. The other launches a global initiative aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism by improving control of nuclear material and facilities and tracing illegal trafficking.

But the failure of WTO talks proved a powerful disappointment for one of Putin's highest priorities. Although 149 nations belong to the global trade group, including China, Russia remains on the outside and the United States is the only one standing in the way of Russian membership.

After years of talks, both sides thought earlier in the week that they were finally close to a deal that would clear the way for Russian accession, and they embarked on marathon negotiations to reach accord in time for Bush and Putin to announce Saturday. U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab flew to Moscow on Wednesday and negotiated late three nights in a row in a frantic effort to finish -- at one point going 24 hours straight and eating pizza for breakfast.

She and German Gref, the Russian trade minister, made a breakthrough agreement on financial services that would allow U.S. insurance companies to set up branch offices in Russia while keeping U.S. banks from doing so. At one point, Russians were so optimistic that they said a deal would be signed at the Bush-Putin summit. But Schwab stayed up until 2:30 a.m. Saturday trying to push to the end, only to give up in disagreement mainly over access for U.S. meat products to Russia's market.

"We're tough negotiators," Bush said when a Russian reporter asked about U.S. resistance. "And the reason why is because we want the agreement that we reach to be accepted by our United States Congress." Bush said the agreement was "almost reached" and added that "the intention to achieve an agreement is there."

Although Schwab said the agreement is 90 percent done, she now plans to return home and predicted talks will require two or three more months to finalize. "This is an agreement that could have been closed in time," she lamented.

Z. Blake Marshall, executive vice president of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, said the summit was a false deadline. "Our sense is this shouldn't be viewed as a breakdown in talks or a failure to conclude. We're actually encouraged by how much they did get done."

But Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center said it would be seen in the Kremlin as a major blow because it expected Bush to reward Putin's friendship. "They hoped, people within the government, that the U.S. would do that and I think they feel disappointed," he said. "But I think if President Bush had agreed to this, he would have been criticized in the U.S. for this present to President Putin."

The WTO impasse underscored the divide between Russia and the United States on a variety of issues. On Israel's strikes in southern Lebanon, Bush said "all parties here want the violence to stop" while Putin said, "Bloodshed should stop as soon as possible."

But Bush put the onus on Hezbollah to quit firing rockets at Israel and demanded Syria rein it in. "The best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms and to stop attacking," he said. "And therefore I call upon Syria to exert influence over Hezbollah." Putin, though, focused on what he and other G-8 leaders consider Israel's excessive response in bombing civilian targets: "We consider Israel's concerns to be justified. At the same time, we work under the assumption that the use of force should be balanced."

Similarly, on Iran's nuclear program, Bush emphasized that he and Putin agree that Tehran should not have nuclear weapons. But that is a consensus they have shared for some time and Putin did not answer when a reporter asked him if he was now ready to support U.N. sanctions against Iran. Instead, he said cryptically at another point in the Iran discussion, "We will not participate in any crusades, in any holy alliances."

And Putin made clear he was not interested in being told what to do on Russian democracy. "He doesn't want anybody telling him how to run his government," Bush noted, recounting their dinner Friday night. Putin echoed that. "We assume that nobody knows better than us how we can strengthen our own nation," he said.

Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, said the day highlighted the current state of the leaders' relationship. "The bilateral discussions are very complicated because we have a common point of view when we are talking about strategic stability but we have disagreements on tactics -- with regard to Iran or Lebanon," he said.

Yet the presidents tried not to emphasize those disputes. "These are two guys who came in who want to have the image of success, they want to say the partnership is going well," said Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior fellow at the Nixon Center in Washington. "But this could have worked in 2001. It's starting to wear thin now."