WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush telephoned Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday but appeared to stop short of offering the customary White House congratulations to the president-elect.
Russian news agencies reported earlier in the day that Bush called and congratulated Medvedev, the protege and successor of outgoing President Vladimir Putin, on his victory in a Sunday election that has been criticized by Western observers.
But U.S. accounts of the Bush-Medvedev conversation had no reference to the kind of White House congratulations routinely offered to newly elected foreign leaders.
“I’m not going to get into the word game about congratulations or not-congratulations,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters when asked whether congratulations had been offered.
“Our position about the Russian elections leading up to it (the phone call) has been well-known and our concerns were expressed from the beginning.”
Relations between the United States and Russia have been rocky during Putin’s tenure and the two countries have clashed over issues ranging from Kosovo’s independence to Iran’s nuclear program. Putin steps down in May.
Medvedev was elected with 72 percent of the vote and has pledged to pursue the policies of his mentor Putin, whom he has asked to be prime minister in his new government.
Western observers have criticized the election as neither free nor fair but said its outcome broadly reflected the will of the people.
Russia’s human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said Medvedev would have to prove he could ensure freedoms when he took over as Kremlin leader later this year.
Asked if there was a purpose behind the apparent lack of congratulations in Bush’s conversation and other administration statements, Perino replied: “I don’t know of any purpose necessarily.”
“What the president did today was call the president-elect of Russia. They had a very good first conversation,” she said.
“He did what he routinely does with lots of presidents-elect around the world, which is call to say: ‘Thank you for taking my call and I look forward to working with you.’”
Bush, who is due to leave office in January 2009, does not know Medvedev well, having met him briefly in 2004, she said. Perino also noted that Bush’s relations with Putin have included difficulties that the U.S. president has described as “diplomatic head-butts.”
In a statement on Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush had told Medvedev he looked forward to working with the new Russian leader and that he hoped the two could “establish a close working relationship.”
“President Bush said that he had read with interest Mr. Medvedev’s recent remarks on personal freedoms, independent media, rule of law and fighting corruption,” he said.
Russian news agencies, citing Medvedev’s office, said Bush and the president-elect agreed to “continue the tradition of a mutually trustful, fair and open dialogue that existed between Vladimir Putin and George Bush and which was key to the development of Russian-U.S. ties.”
“The two expressed their mutual desire to preserve the positive elements of bilateral cooperation which helps jointly solve problems which arise from time to time in the process of international cooperation,” the agencies reported.
Editing by John O'Callaghan