Bush and Putin's theater of the absurd

Published February 26, 2005 2:53AM (EST)

President Bush's European tour made a stop in Bratislava, Slovakia, yesterday, where the prez and longtime "soul mate" Vladimir Putin had a chat about democracy.

Senators on both sides of the aisle have been pressuring the Bush administration to upbraid Putin. They contend that Putin has stifled Russia's independent media and proposed eliminating popular elections for the country's regional governors. Russia's practice of selling weapons to Syria and its assistance in Iran's nuclear program have also come under fire. On Monday, Bush issued a warning statement in Brussels, implying that Putin's "commitment to democracy and the rule of law" had faltered.

But in yesterday's press conference, Bush didn't bring the heat. Instead, the AP reported, "Bush had the liberty tables turned on him under skeptical questioning from Russian journalists. They wanted to know about expansion of government security measures at the expense of personal freedom after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and about the extent of press freedoms in the United States." Bush's response was superficially reassuring, but did little to directly address the questions: "I live in a transparent country... I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you, our country is one that safeguards human rights and human dignity, and we resolve our disputes in a peaceful way." (Putin attempted to save the day, jumping in with: "I'd like to support my American counterpart. I am absolutely confident that democracy is not anarchy," which may have prompted the Brookings Institution's Clifford Gaddy's observation that the whole exchange "seemed like the theater of the absurd.")

So far, the Bratislava event has done little to appease European critics of U.S. foreign policy. The International Herald Tribune reported today: "Some of the small Central European countries believe it is the United States that often poses more of a security threat than Russia." And it doesn't seem to have allayed public concern about Russia's accountability, either. Hungarian political scientist and European Parliament member George Schvpflin observed: "The reality is that it is a very fluid time in terms of how America and the Europeans deal with Russia. When they feel it is in their interests, both the U.S. and the Europeans will do ad hoc deals with Putin."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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