U.S. President George Bush is questioning Russian President Vladimir Putin's commitment to democracy. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports Mr. Bush spoke in the Czech Republic at the start of a six-nation tour of Europe.
Already at odds with President Putin over plans for a missile defense system in Europe, President Bush used a pro-democracy speech in Prague to criticize the Russian leader's performance on democracy.
"In Russia, reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," said Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bush said America has a complex friendship with Russia, and part of that relationship is the ability to speak openly about disagreements.
Stung by earlier criticism of the pace of democracy in Russia, President Putin told reporters in Moscow that he is an absolute and pure democrat. There simply are not others like this in the world, he said.
While Russia was not the only target of President Bush's pro-democracy speech, his comments are likely to further complicate a Thursday meeting with President Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Germany.
Mr. Putin says Washington's plan for a missile defense system in Europe is upsetting the strategic balance of the world, and he will not be responsible for retaliatory steps if the plan goes through. He says that response could include setting new missile targets in Europe.
President Bush spoke at an international conference on democracy and security in Prague - his only major speech on this European trip.
He said the United States is using its influence to urge Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan to move toward greater freedoms. Mr. Bush said China's leaders wrongly believe they can continue to open their economy without opening their political system.
He criticized Venezuela for dismantling democratic institutions, Uzbekistan for silencing independent voices, and Vietnam for jailing religious and political activists.
"North Koreans live in a closed society where dissent is brutally suppressed, and they are cut off from their brothers and sisters to the south," Mr. Bush said. "The Iranians are a great people who deserve to chart their own future, but they are denied their liberty by a handful of extremists whose pursuit of nuclear weapons prevents their country from taking its rightful place amongst the thriving."
President Bush said he has met personally with dissidents from what he says are some of the world's worst dictatorships - including Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.
He said critics point to violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon as evidence that freedom leaves people less safe. But he said it is terrorists causing that violence because they understand that free societies are a mortal threat to their ambitions.