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Bush good personal relationship with putin { December 21 2004 }

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Bush Says He Wants to Keep Ties With Putin
Relationship Called 'Good' Despite Policy Concerns
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page A20

President Bush reaffirmed his "good personal relationship" with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday despite democratic rollbacks that prompted a leading U.S. advocacy organization to declare Russia "not free" for the first time since 1989, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bush said he has pressed Putin on some of the Kremlin's crackdown on political opposition but is determined to preserve the strong ties the two established at their first meeting in Slovenia in 2001, when the president declared that he had looked into the Russian's soul and found a partner. Senior administration officials said yesterday that Bush plans to meet with Putin in Slovakia in February during a European tour.

"Vladimir Putin and I have got a good personal relationship, starting with our meeting in Slovenia," Bush said during his year-end news conference. "I intend to keep it that way."

Bush used the word "democracy" repeatedly to express his aspirations for Iraq and the Palestinians, but characterized the issue in Russia as one of "balance of power." He noted that he expressed concern about Putin's decision to eliminate election of governors and appoint them himself.

"He took that on and absorbed in the spirit in which it was offered, the spirit of two people who've grown to appreciate each other and respect each other," Bush said.

Bush's comments came the same day that Freedom House, an independent group promoting democracy around the world, issued a report downgrading Russia from "partly free" to "not free" because of Putin's drive to take over all broadcast media, lock up business leaders who defy him, restrain opposition parties and install his own candidate as president of Ukraine. On Sunday, the Russian government dismantled the oil company of imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin rival.

"These moves mark a dangerous and disturbing drift toward authoritarianism in Russia, made more worrisome by President Putin's recent heavy-handed meddling in political developments in neighboring countries such as Ukraine," said Jennifer Windsor, the group's executive director.

The timing of the two different assessments brought into sharp relief the diverging views over how to deal with Russia. Some U.S. policymakers believe Washington needs to confront Putin more directly about his autocratic moves. Others say the relationship is too important to jeopardize over such issues and that such an approach would prove counterproductive.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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