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Bush likely to voice democracy concerns to Putin

Written by: Staff

Washington, Jul 7: President George W Bush is expected to voice concern about Russia's ''backsliding on democracy'' when he meets President Vladimir Putin before this month's G-8 summit, US officials said.

Such criticism has already been foreshadowed by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who have accused Putin of restricting freedoms and using Russia's vast energy resources to bully its neighbors.

Putin yesterday sought to play down chilly relations with Washington before he hosts the Group of Eight summit of leading industrial nations in St. Petersburg. He said Bush remained a ''decent'' friend and the United States one of Russia's most important partners.

Senior administration officials briefing reporters in Washington said that while Russia had made significant democratic reforms since the fall of communism, Washington was worried about recent trends.

They said it was a ''good bet'' that ''our concerns about backsliding on democracy'' will be on the agenda when Bush meets Putin. The two will dine together on July 14 and hold bilateral talks the next day before the summit opens.

''Over the past couple of years, we have been concerned about the concentration of powers in the Kremlin, about the diminishing of space for public debate, the narrowing of the debate in the press,'' the official said. ''We want to gain reassurance that Russia is indeed committed to democracy.'' Another US official said Russia's record on democracy was also likely to come up for discussion among G-8 leaders.

Differences over gas supplies to Europe, Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization and competition for allies in the former Soviet Union have strained relations recently.

Cheney chided Russia in May for its record on democracy and accused it of using energy supplies as a tool of ''blackmail and intimidation,'' sparking an angry reaction from Moscow.

A US official said the administration hoped the G-8's final statement on energy would ''reflect our orientation about the importance of transparency, open and competitive markets, an open investment environment.''


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