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Bush pushes Putin on democracy

Bratislava (Slovakia), Feb. 24 (Reuters): President George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin today and said he had told the Russian President about his concerns over democracy in Russia.

After a summit in Slovakia, both leaders stressed their close ties and common ground and Bush said they shared the goal that neither Iran nor North Korea should have nuclear weapons.

But Bush ' who had set the tone for the meeting by predicting a march of democracy across Russia's ex-Soviet backyard ' said strong countries needed to be democratic.

'Democracies have certain things in common ' a rule of law and protection of minorities and a free press and a viable political Opposition,' he told a joint news conference.

'I was able to share my concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles. I did so in a constructive and friendly way.'

The meeting comes amid growing concern in the West that Putin is backsliding on democracy, with critics saying his tough policies towards opponents have curbed true democracy. Putin said western fears were unfounded.

'Russia has made its choice in favour of democracy,' he said. 'Any return to totalitarianism... would be impossible.' The leaders have warm personal ties and put a brave face on differences as they stood side-by-side at Bratislava Castle, the final stage of Bush's fence-mending trip to Europe.

Addressing 4,000 people in a central square in snow-bound Bratislava earlier, Bush praised democratic change that swept ex-communist eastern Europe over a decade ago and was now spreading to ex-Soviet republics.

'The advance of freedom is the concentrated work of generations,' said Bush, who has made supporting democratic change around the world a theme for his second term.

'It took almost a decade after the (1989) velvet revolution for democracy to fully take root in this country. And the democratic revolutions that swept this region over 15 years ago are now reaching Georgia and Ukraine,' he said.

Bush said elections in Moldova could aid democracy in the ex-Soviet Union and even isolated Belarus would one day fall into the democratic fold. 'Inevitably, the people of Belarus will some day proudly belong to the country of democracies.'

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