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Bush and Putin to Hold Summit Next Week


President Bush will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Slovakia next week for the first summit since Mr. Bush began his second term. Although both countries talk about their "strategic partnership", a lot has changed since they established a close personal relationship over four years ago.

Four years ago President Bush said he looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes at their first formal summit and found "a man I could deal with."

Positive relations between the two men improved still more when Mr. Putin was the first foreign leader to telephone his condolences after the September 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington.

The two countries then strengthened their resolve to combat terrorism in what both sides call a "strategic partnership."

But a lot has changed in recent years, and the upcoming summit may not go as smoothly as that first meeting did.

Russia opposed the U.S.-led war against Iraq, the expansion of the NATO military alliance and what it sees as American meddling in former Soviet republics.

Relations were severely tested in the recent electoral crisis in Ukraine, which ended with the election of pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko, who defeated the Russian backed candidate.

For its part the United States has expressed concern about what it sees as Mr. Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule in Russia.

Mr. Putin now controls virtually every lever of power in Russia, from the two houses of parliament to major broadcast media.

Most recently, the cancellation of direct elections for regional governors led to a sharp exchange of views when the two presidents met at an international summit in Chile last November.

These issues have led some analysts to warn that a new kind of Cold War may be emerging between the United States and Russia.

Viktor Kremenyuk is an analyst at the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow. He says Russia is worried about potential criticism over internal politics. "The Kremlin, I think, feels in advance, rather awkward about the possibility that the focus of the discussion will be inside Russia; what is happening in Russia?," he said.

There is also concern in Russia about a tougher policy toward Moscow under new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has an academic background as a Kremlinologist.

At her recent confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate, Ms. Rice said she plans to press Russia on what the United States sees as backtracking on democratic reforms under President Putin. More recently, she announced plans to increase support for independent groups in Russia's "civil society".

Mr. Putin has said little about what he expects to accomplish at the summit.

But in January he did express concern that some Western countries may be trying to isolate Russia, in light of the events in Ukraine. Mr. Putin says he doesn't think this is U.S. policy, but he will seek clarification from President Bush. He expresses concern that the West may be trying to create problems for Russia.

A senior U.S. diplomat in Moscow says this is not the case, and the United States wants to help Russia get stronger and more prosperous.

Officials in both countries point to positive aspects of the relationship, in particular efforts to combat terrorism.

Mr. Putin took some political risk when Russia did not oppose the stationing of U.S. troops in former Soviet states in Central Asia as part of the war on terror.

Trade relations are also generally positive, although there are increased concerns about Russia's crackdown on the giant oil company Yukos.

Russian officials have asserted that Moscow has the right to increase control over what it sees as strategic resources.

In this vein, the Kremlin recently announced new restrictions on foreign investment in major oil exploration projects, something U.S. officials say will be raised at the upcoming summit.

Despite all the changes, analyst Viktor Kremenyuk says Mr. Putin is likely to use his personal relationship with Mr. Bush to patch up differences.

"The Russian side mainly wants to restore the relationship as it was before the Iraqi crisis, and to return back to some very close, personal, warm relationship," he said.

But Russian sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky says that the personal ties between the two men may have become a hindrance in relations between the countries.

He says Mr. Bush will have to respond to increased criticism about developments in Russia and a perceived lack of response from Moscow on many issues.

"The American administration will use these problems to get more from Putin, saying 'OK, we will keep developing our friendly cooperation with you but you also have to understand our problems, you have to deliver something that we can show that our policy towards you works," he said.

The two presidents are scheduled to meet next Thursday in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

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