Thursday, February 24, 2005

Key word: democracy

Mr Bush must be a very happy bunny tonight as he wings his way back across the Atlantic – happy and relieved to get away from the madhouse that is European politics.

If he had any message to give the world though, it was in his last press conference with Vladimir Putin in Slovakia – the message being one word: democracy. Between the pair, they used the word 21 times. Freedom, incidentally, got only three mentions.

In his main speech, after dealing with Iran and sundry other issues, Bush told the world he and Putin had talked about democracy. Democracies, her said, always reflect a country's customs and culture, but they also had certain things in common: "…rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition."

With that, he reaffirmed his belief "that it is democracy and freedom that bring true security and prosperity in every land."

Significantly, or so it seems, in his response, Putin did not make any reference to democracy once but the first question from a reporter took up the theme again. Addressing the president, he reminded Bush that when he first met Putin, at a time some in the world were questioning his commitment to democracy, he had reassured critics by saying that you had looked into his soul and saw a man that you found trustworthy.

Bush was then invited to repeat that statement, while Putin was asked to "address critics" who were worried that he had reversed course on democracy.

Central to Bush's response was: "I think it's very important that all nations understand the great values inherent in democracy - rule of law and protection of minorities, viable political debate." Putin came back saying Russia had made its choice in favour of democracy. Any kind of turn towards totalitarianism for Russia would be impossible.

After waiting so long for a "democracy" from Putin, we then got no less than another four, all in a row. "We are not going to make up - to invent any kind of special Russian democracy," he said. "We are going to remain committed to the fundamental principles of democracy that have been established in the world. But, of course, all the modern institutions of democracy - the principles of democracy should be adequate to the current status of the development of Russia, to our history and our traditions.

The preceding period in the development of the Russian Federation had given the main thing to the Russian people – freedom, but "the implementation of the principles and norms of democracy," he added, "should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people."

Then, another "democracy" came along, and another: "I personally believe," said Putin, "that the implementation and the strengthening of democracy on the Russian soil should not jeopardize the concept of democracy. It should strengthen statehood and it should improve living standards for the people. It is in this direction that we're going to act."

This brought another question from the press corps, which suggested that the regimes in place in Russia and the US could not be considered fully democratic, especially when compared to some other countries of Europe, for example - for example, the Netherlands, mainly because of great powers that had been assumed by the security services.

Bush's response was interesting:

I live in a transparent country. I live in a country where decisions made by government are wide open, and people are able to call people to - me to account, which many out here do on a regular basis. Our laws, and the reasons why we have laws on the books, are perfectly explained to people. Every decision we have made is within the Constitution of the United States. We have a Constitution that we uphold. And if there is a question as to whether or not a law meets that Constitution, we have an independent court system, through which that law is reviewed.
Putin, however, took a different tack: "I'm absolutely confident that democracy is not anarchy”, he said. “It is not a possibility to do anything you want. It is not the possibility for anyone to rob your own people. Democracy is, among other things, and first and foremost, the possibility to democratically make democratic laws and the capability of the state to enforce those laws."

It was not right to talk about whether there was more or less democracy in Russia or the US. But, it was possible to talk about how the fundamental principles of democracy were implemented.

Still niggling away, another reporter asked whether the pair had agreed on some of the decisions Putin had made on his democratic institutions - or had they agreed to disagree?

Bush temporised: "I think the most important statement that you heard, and I heard, was the President's statement, when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia, and they're not turning back. To me, that is the most important statement of my private meeting, and it's the most important statement of this public press conference." And when Putin "tells you something, he means it."

Still the gathered reporters would not leave it. President Bush had recently stated that the press in Russia is not free, said another reporter. What is this lack of freedom all about?

Bush took this one, saying that he thought, "it's important any viable democracy has got a free and active press… it is an important part of any democracy." The press had to hold leaders to account. Bush was comfortable with that. "It's part of the checks and balances of a democracy," he said.

Putin actually agreed that "criticism coming from the media with respect to the government" was "a manifestation of democracy", denying also that the Russian press was not free.

But he was obviously getting tired with the line. You could almost hear his thoughts: "That's enough free press, ed". I "do not think that this has to be pushed to the foreground, that new problems should be created from nothing," he declared stiffly. And with but a few more words, he thanked Bush for "his constructive dialogue". The press conference was over.

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