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Bush: Putin leader of consequence, but to what end?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Thursday said Russian President Vladimir Putin was chosen “Person of the Year” by a U.S. magazine for being a leader of consequence, but only time would judge “to what end.”

President George W. Bush (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin button up their jackets following their bilateral meeting in Sydney, September 7, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Bush joked that he and Putin now belonged to the same club after Time magazine named the Russian leader as the most newsworthy person of 2007 and wrote a cover story about him. Bush was selected by the magazine twice, in 2004 and 2000, the years he was elected president.

“You know, I’m looking forward to seeing him at the alumni meeting of the man of the year,” Bush quipped at a news conference.

“I presume they put him on there because he was a consequential leader. And the fundamental question is: Consequential to what end? You know, what will the country look like 10 years from now?” Bush said.

U.S.-Russian relations have become strained, with Washington criticizing Moscow for backtracking on democratic reforms and Russia angry over U.S. intentions to build a missile defense system in Europe.

Disagreements over the Iraq war, independence for Kosovo and sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program have also eroded the bond between the leaders that started with Bush’s famous statement in 2001 that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and got a sense of his soul.

“My hope, of course, is that Russia is a country which understands there needs to be checks and balances, and free and fair elections, and a vibrant press,” Bush said.

“That they understand Western values based upon human rights and human dignity are values that will lead to a better country. That’s my hopes,” he said.

In an interview with Time magazine, Putin said the United States was trying to “seek problems inside Russia all the time.”

Putin accused the United States of trying to undermine Russia to further its global dominance and said Washington had ignored Moscow’s attempts to build a friendship.

Bush avoided any direct criticism of Putin, who has expressed interest in becoming prime minister after endorsing an ally to succeed him as president.

The Russian constitution bars Putin, who has presided over an economic boom in his country, from seeking a third term.

“Now, there’s speculation as to whether or not he’ll be the prime minister,” Bush said. “I haven’t talked to him about it. And until that happens, I think we better just watch and see.”

Dmitry Medvedev is almost certain to become the next president of Russia and his popularity ratings rose sharply after Putin said he wanted his close friend to succeed him.

“What’ll be interesting next year is how the Russian president carries on his business -- the new Russian president,” Bush said.

“We’ll be together probably a couple of times next year, and it’ll be interesting to see how foreign policy is conducted and what the role of President Putin may be or not be,” he said.

Editing by David Alexander