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Bush: Putin Has "Derailed" Democracy

President Bush pauses during a speech at the Czernin Palace on Tuesday, June 5, 2007 in Prague.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Bush risked further fueling a testy dispute with Russia over a new U.S. missile defense system on Tuesday, saying that Moscow has "derailed" once-promising democratic reforms.

In a speech celebrating democracy's progress around the globe — and calling out places where its reach is either incomplete or lacking — Mr. Bush said that free societies emerge "at different speeds in different places" and have to reflect local customs. But he said certain values are universal to all democracies, and rapped several countries for not embracing them.

"In Russia, reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Mr. Bush said, speaking at a democracy conference in Prague organized by former dissidents.

The president asserted that this discussion of democratic backsliding in Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin was just one part of a strong relationship. "America can maintain a friendship and push a nation toward democracy at the same time," he said.

Speaking only hours earlier at a joint news conference with his Czech counterpart, Mr. Bush took a more conciliatory tone on the contentious relationship with Moscow, saying Russia is not an enemy of the United States, and has nothing to fear from the proposed missile defense system.

"Russia is not the enemy," Mr. Bush said after meeting with top Czech leaders in a visit en route to the G-8 summit in Germany. He said he would take a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that "we can work together on common threats." The Kremlin is bitterly opposed to the missile shield, and Putin warned on Monday that Russia could take "retaliatory steps" if Washington insists on building it.

Mr. Bush's speech on democracy was part of his "freedom agenda".

But the far more important theme was his appeal to Putin to tone down his fierce rhetorical opposition to the defense plan. Mr. Bush beseeched Putin in his earlier remarks to join in the plan, suggesting he send Russian generals to inspect the proposed sites.

The president said, off-handedly addressing his Russian counterpart via the television waves; "As a matter of fact, why don't you cooperate with us on a missile defense system?"

The president arrived Monday evening in Prague for a day of meetings with Czech leaders.

CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante reports the missile defense standoff has set back American relations with Moscow like nothing else in years.

But Russia is not alone in disliking the idea of constructing missile and radar installations in the Czech Republic and other countries on its doorstep. Most Czechs aren't happy about the proposal, either.

Recent polls in the former Soviet satellite, now a democratic NATO ally, show more than 60 percent of the public in opposition.

The international debate over the missile defense system likely will drown out everything else during Mr. Bush's stay in Prague. The U.S. plan calls for an anti-missile radar base to be built at the Brdy military zone southwest of the capital.

For their part, Czech leaders have brushed off Russia's objections, remaining receptive to the project. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek called it "a necessary step which will significantly increase our security and also the security of our European allies and neighbors."

Most Czech citizens, though, worry about Russian threats to take military steps in response, and they fear that the installation could make the tiny country a terrorist target.

In Prague last weekend, more than 1,000 people protested the plan. Demonstrators planned to show their displeasure again Tuesday outside medieval Prague Castle, where Bush was to meet with Topolanek and President Vaclav Klaus.

Over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped up already incendiary remarks about the U.S. and its intentions with the shield, warning that Moscow could take "retaliatory steps" including aiming nuclear weapons at U.S. military bases in Europe. Russia believes the shield in Eastern Europe is meant for it, and says it has no choice but to boost its own military potential in response.