HEILIGENDAMM, Germany (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush criticized Russia on democracy on Tuesday but sought to calm President Vladimir Putin’s anger over U.S. missile shield plans on the eve of a G8 summit in Germany.
Speaking in Prague before heading to the Baltic coast resort of Heiligendamm for the meeting of major powers, Bush said Putin had nothing to fear from the shield, calling it a “purely defensive” measure.
“Russia is not our enemy,” Bush said after meeting Czech leaders on a visit aimed at highlighting the country’s emergence from Soviet domination.
He said he would urge Putin at the summit to cooperate with the U.S. plan to deploy a radar system in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland, but later in a speech took a dig at Moscow’s record on democracy.
“In Russia reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development,” Bush said.
His comments are part of an escalating war of words between the former Cold War rivals which the German hosts fear could overshadow the June 6-8 summit of the so-called Group of Eight — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Putin has said if Washington pushes ahead with its plans to deploy the missile system, Russia will revert to targeting its missiles on Europe as it did during the Cold War.
His deputy spokesman rejected Bush’s comments on democracy on Tuesday, describing Russia as a “democratic state” that shared global and European values.
“On his statement about the rolling back of democratic reforms, we are convinced that the reality in Russia today demonstrates the opposite,” Dmitry Peskov said.
The two powers are also at odds on the fate of breakaway Serbian province Kosovo, with Washington backing independence and Moscow supporting Belgrade’s efforts to prevent autonomy at all costs. Bush met in Prague with a senior ethnic Albanian leader from Kosovo.
On global warming, another contentious issue where the Europeans have clashed frequently with Washington, it appeared leaders would make progress on goals to negotiate a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol which Washington shunned in 2001.
In an interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper on the eve of the summit, Blair said he was convinced that he could persuade Bush to sign up to a “substantial cut” in greenhouse gas emissions, in line with U.N.-backed targets.
“I think the announcement by President Bush last week was significant and important, and it is absurd to say otherwise, since it moved things on,” said Blair, who stands down as prime minister in three weeks’ time.
“...at the heart of (a deal) there has to be a global target for a substantial cut in emissions. I believe it is possible to get all that way.”
Climate change proposals from Bush last week had sowed fears in Europe that Washington would go outside the well-established United Nations process to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
James Connaughton, a senior climate adviser to Bush, said in Berlin the he was confident major powers could agree how to create a new framework for combating global warming after 2012, when the first period of Kyoto expires.
“It was never anyone’s intention to have a separate process. The U.S. is a party to the U.N.’s framework convention on climate change. That is the forum where we would take action together on climate change,” Connaughton said.
But a senior German official conceded there had been no agreement on specific climate change goals, including Merkel’s call for reducing global CO2 emissions by 50 percent by 2050.
“There’s still time before the summit,” he said. “We’re still talking.”
Informal meetings of the world’s top industrial powers date back to 1975, when the G6 gathered in Rambouillet, France, to coordinate economic policy following a global oil crisis and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Canada joined the club in 1976 and Russia in 1998.
In Heiligendamm, the leaders will discuss foreign policy issues including Iran’s nuclear program, Middle East peace, Sudan and Kosovo. The German hosts are also aiming to secure new G8 pledges on development aid and AIDS funding for Africa.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Jan Lopatka and Erik Kirschbaum in Rostock