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Putin Says Russia Doesn't Need Any Lectures

STRELNA, Leningrad Region -- President Vladimir Putin said Russia would take lessons from no one, following unproductive talks with U.S. President George W. Bush on Russia's World Trade Organization bid, renewed Middle East violence, Iran and the state of Russian democracy.

"We proceed from the fact that no one knows better than we do how to strengthen our state," a steely Putin said Saturday at a news conference following morning talks between the two leaders. "But we know for sure that we cannot strengthen our state without developing democratic institutions, and this is the path that we will certainly take. But we're certainly going to do this on our own."

Click here to see photo essay "Scenes from the Summit"

The two presidents seemed to have found little common ground on key areas of mutual concern in talks opening the Group of Eight summit. And amid much discussion of Russia's newfound assertiveness on the back of record-high oil prices, Putin seemed to have assumed the dominant role.

Bush took a deferential tone when asked by a journalist about the results of the conversation he had planned to have with Putin about Russia's democratic track record.

"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, and I told him that a lot of people in our country, you know, would hope that Russia would do the same thing," Bush said.

"I fully understand, however, that there will be a Russian-style democracy," Bush said. "I don't expect Russia to look like the United States. As Vladimir pointedly reminded me last night, we have a different history, different traditions."

The otherwise grim Putin responded with a wry smile.

"We certainly would not like to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I'll tell you that quite honestly," Putin said, drawing laughter from the room. An embarrassed-looking Bush responded: "Just wait."

The cool exchange, in which Bush tried to play on personal ties and Putin emphasized Russia's independent course, was typical of the joint appearance -- including the presidents' comments on the failure to conclude an expected bilateral agreement on Russia's WTO accession. (See related story, page 7.)

Putin said he and Bush were often asked whether their personal relationship helped when it came to pushing forward a difficult issue. "I always say, and I know that he believes as well, that such personal informal relations help us in our work. At the same time, I have to tell you it does not prevent us from standing up for our national interests.

"I can't say the difficulties [in the WTO talks] were unexpected," Putin said. "We will continue to work, pursuing our interests, the interests of our developing economy."

Russian officials had expressed great hope that a WTO deal would be concluded Saturday, hailing breakthroughs on disputes in the financial services field and intellectual property rights. But talks between Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab that went on into the early hours of Saturday ended without an agreement.

The United States is the only country holding up Russia's accession to the 149-member body, though Georgia's foreign minister threatened Friday that his country would withdraw its previous approval of Russia's bid.

On another contentious issue between the two countries -- the standoff over Iran's nuclear program -- Bush was at pains to insist progress had been made, while both his and Putin's characterization of Russia's position showed no movement.

"There's progress because Russia and the United States agree that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon," Bush said. "In other words, the Iranians need to understand that we're speaking with one voice that they shouldn't have a weapon, and that's progress."

"See, we've made our choice, and that's progress," Bush said. "We've agreed to work together to achieve a common goal. That's considerable progress."

Putin, meanwhile, stressed that Russia's position had not changed.

"I can repeat: It is not in Russia's national interest to see the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in such an explosive region as the Middle East," Putin said. "There is nothing novel about our position in this respect."

But on the question of UN sanctions against Iran, which the United States has pushed hard for and Russia has resisted, Putin indicated no change.

"We need to take efficient diplomatic steps that will not disrupt the delicate fabric of negotiations in the search for a mutually acceptable decision," Putin said.

He later said, in an apparent reference to Iran: "We will not participate in any crusades, in any holy alliances."

There was a similar divide in responses to Israel's all-out assault on Lebanon after Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers.

"The best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms and to stop attacking," Bush said, calling on Syria to pressure Hezbollah to do so.

Putin, however, joined the united front of French President Jacques Chirac, European Union Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso and other European leaders in condemning Israel's response as "disproportionate."

The one evident point of accord was a joint agreement to combat the threat of nuclear proliferation and terrorism and cooperate in expanding access to civilian nuclear energy, in part by setting up international enrichment centers for nuclear fuel.

Elaborating on the latter plan, Federal Atomic Energy Agency head Sergei Kiriyenko said Saturday that the first such center would be opened in Angarsk in eastern Siberia. He said the necessary legislation for the center and documentation to be submitted to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency would be ready by June 2007.

Kiriyenko rejected earlier reports that Russia would collect and store spent U.S. nuclear fuel from reactors around the world.

"We have not, do not and will not import spent nuclear fuel. That is our firm position," Kiriyenko said.

Graham Allison, director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said Bush and Putin's agreement on combating nuclear terrorism was "interesting and important."

"Basically, it provides an umbrella framework for preventing, detecting, disrupting and mitigating the consequences of nuclear terrorism with intelligence and technological cooperation," Allison said in an interview on the sidelines of the summit. "Now it's a question of what meat they put on each of those bones."

But nuclear cooperation aside, the meeting of minds between the two presidents seemed to have ended on Friday evening, when Bush arrived a day before other G8 leaders for an informal meeting with Putin.

Accompanied by their wives, the two drove electric golf carts to their meeting near Konstantin Palace, where luxurious 20-room cottages have been built to house them during the three-day summit.

A visibly pleased Putin showed Bush his first car, a Zaporozhets -- a Soviet-made sedan notorious for its ugliness and noisy engine -- which he drove as a student in the 1970s.

Putin boasted that despite its bad reputation, the Zaporozhets was still running well.

At the news conference a day later, Bush was the one doing the boasting -- lavishing praise on "my friend Vladimir" while Putin stood coldly at his side.

"He's a strong man," Bush said. "Look, he's willing to listen, but he also explains to me, he doesn't want anybody telling him how to run his government."

(The Moscow Times 17.vii.06)

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