Smiles can't cover the pains

St Petersburg, Russia: President Vladimir Putin all but taunted President Bush yesterday over the situation in Iraq as their one-on-one

Smiles can't cover the pains

St Petersburg, Russia: President Vladimir Putin all but taunted President Bush yesterday over the situation in Iraq as their one-on-one summit ended on a prickly note - and with no sign of a breakthrough on the many issues dividing the two estranged allies.

Aides to the two presidents had hoped that a successful bilateral meeting in St Petersburg could pave the way for a harmonious start of the G8 summit of world leaders.

But Russia's last-minute failure early in the morning to secure US support for its entry to the World Trade Organisation set the tone for what was clearly a frosty meeting and then a distinctly awkward joint press conference.

As they stood side by side, Bush did his best to gloss over their differences, describing their relationship as "strong and necessary" and delivering only implicit critiques of the Kremlin's authoritarian style of government.

But when he made a guarded dig at his host by citing approvingly the spread of religious and press freedoms in Iraq - liberties that critics say are under threat in Russia - Putin bridled.

With a half smile he replied: "I'll be honest with you, we of course would not want to have a democracy like in Iraq."

Critics

The hall that was packed with hundreds of mainly Russian journalists erupted in laughter. It was Bush's turn to smile thinly.

This is not a moment he will have enjoyed and it will be used by his critics in Washington as yet another piece of evidence to argue that he has badly underestimated the Russian leader.

Five years ago, when the two first met, Bush famously endorsed the former KGB agent.

"I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul," he said.

His ringing endorsement stirred memories of Margaret Thatcher's remark in 1985 that the then new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a man she could "do business" with.

But history has been less kind to Bush's brave claim than to Thatcher's. As the US President conceded yesterday, Putin is in an assertive mood and is not going to be shy of defending his record.

"As Vladimir pointedly reminded me last night," he said, "We have a different history and traditions. "I fully understand there will be a Russian-style democracy," he added.

Putin is "a strong man, he's willing to listen but O' he doesn't want anyone telling him how to run his government."

Dressed informally, they sought to turn back the clock to the early days of their courtship on Friday night as they put on a brief two-man comedy act ahead of a quiet barbecue dinner.

They joked about their cars. Putin laughed about Bush's passion for mountain-biking.

The US president who renounced alcohol on his 40th birthday after a history of problems with drink even made a rare reference to booze, telling his journalistic entourage to go and find some vodka.

However, the seating plan for their meeting yesterday morning told a very different story.

The two delegations were arranged so they could barely make eye-contact with each other.

The Russians were clearly furious at the collapse of the months-long negotiations to secure US agreement for Russia's entry into the WTO.

The US is the only country Russia needs an agreement with to seal its 13-year campaign to join the body. It is the largest country outside the WTO.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16
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