Bush, Putin Hail Ties Despite Differences

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Moscow (CNSNews.com) - Despite disagreements over Moscow's perceived drift away from democracy, U.S. and Russian leaders put a positive face on bilateral ties at a summit here Sunday.

President Bush thanked President Vladimir Putin for help in Arab-Israeli peace efforts and in dealing with Iran's nuclear programs.

"Russia's a great nation and I'm looking forward to working together on big problems," Bush said. "I want to thank you for your help on Iran and the Middle East and there's a lot we can do together."

Bush and Putin also reportedly discussed Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran, among other issues.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who briefed reporters on the talks, said Bush and Putin found wide agreement on the Middle East and a shared resolve to fight terrorism.

In a hinted acknowledgment that some difficult issues do exist, Lavrov said that for the two presidents, "there are no forbidden topics."

Bush and dozens of world leaders were to join Putin Monday at a Red Square parade marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

Bush's presence at the parade is viewed here as an important symbolic gesture at a time when relations have been strained over authoritarian trends in Russia and U.S.-backed democratic transitions in former Soviet states.

Before Bush's arrival, Moscow expressed irritation about U.S. criticism of Russian policy towards former Soviet republics. During an earlier stop in Latvia, the American leader said Russia should acknowledge the Soviet domination of Central and Eastern Europe and its occupation of the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The presidents of Lithuania and Estonia are boycotting the event.

Bush plans to round off his four-nation trip with a stop in Georgia, whose pro-Moscow government was ousted by a Western-leaning opposition in late 2003.

Washington has also been critical of Putin's moves to consolidate power and restrictions on media freedom.

"In an interview aired on CBS television's 60 Minutes Sunday, Putin rejected criticisms on democracy and repeated the Kremlin's recent tack of criticizing the U.S. political system.

"In the United States, you first elect the electors and then they vote for the presidential candidates," he said, in reference to the Electoral College. "In Russia, the president is elected through the direct vote of the whole population. That might be even more democratic."

Despite the strains, the two leaders sounded upbeat about their talks at Putin's heavily guarded residence in a forest 10 miles west of Moscow beltway.

"We should not forget the things that brought us together, that united us," Putin said.

"We have to look to the future to fight for the future of mankind and to fight especially against terrorism."

Putin hosted a private dinner on Sunday evening for the president and Laura Bush, a gesture intended to highlight the friendly relationship between the two leaders.

"I'm having so much fun," said Bush, who at one point took Putin's white 1956 Volga sedan for a spin around the driveway.

Muscovites have been less amused by the influx of world leaders for Monday's ceremonies.

From Saturday until Tuesday, the center of the capital as well as some streets and parts of the beltway are blocked to all traffic except official delegations' cavalcades.

On Sunday afternoon, even routes that had not been mentioned in official advisories were closed, adding to the confusion and traffic snarls.

The government also struggled to deliver on a bizarre pledge to ensure fine weather by dispatching pilots to "seed" clouds and so draw rainfall away from the city center.

Despite the pilots' best efforts, Moscow experienced an almost tropical downpour on Sunday. And light rain was forecast for Monday morning.

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