| President George W. Bush at the Concert Noble ballroom in Brussels. (AFP)
Brussels, Feb. 21 (Reuters): President George W. Bush took his strongest jab so far at the state of democracy and the rule of law in Russia today, three days before he is due to meet President Vladimir Putin.
In a speech appealing for European support for his global campaign for democracy, Bush referred to widespread concerns that Putin has chosen an increasingly authoritarian path.
'For Russia to make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law,' he told an audience in Brussels, headquarters of the 25-nation EU and the Nato alliance.
While it would be wrong to isolate Russia, the US and European countries should 'place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue' with Moscow, Bush said.
'We recognise that reform will not happen overnight. We must always remind Russia, however, that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law,' he said.
Western and Russian civil rights campaigners accuse Putin of restricting democracy by abolishing the election of provincial governors, pursuing a legal vendetta against the Yukos oil company and tightening the Kremlin's grip on the media. His comments set the scene for what could be a robust summit with Putin in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava on Thursday.
'The President's remarks on Russia, warning of the need to protect democratic values, were also stronger than anything he had previously said on the subject,' said analyst Fraser Cameron of the European Policy Centre.
One Russian commentator said the Bush speech would likely annoy the Kremlin.
'I am afraid that may be met with some irritation on the Russian side as probably many Russian politicians are curious as to why... the nature of the domestic political regime should be the subject of international political discussions,' said Boris Makarenko of the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow.
Bush said Russia's future lay within the family of Europe and the transatlantic community.
He added the US favoured World Trade Organisation membership for Russia ' this year if possible ' because meeting the Geneva-based body's standards would 'strengthen the gains of freedom and prosperity in that country'.
Russian analyst Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said: 'There seems to be a consensus in the administration that Russia is not on the right track at the moment as far as democracy is concerned, but as (secretary of state) Condoleezza Rice has said, the view is that disengaging from Russia is not the right move, hence the mention of WTO membership,' she said.
Bush also urged Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, branding Damascus an 'oppressive neighbour' to a once-thriving nation.
'Just as the Syrian regime must take stronger action to stop those who support violence and subversion in Iraq, Syria must also end its occupation of Lebanon,' Bush said in the keynote speech.