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Inside Politics

Bush back in Washington after European trip

Had 'open exchange of views' with Russian leader Putin

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush is back at the White House after five days in Europe spent charming erstwhile allies, extolling the virtues of democracy and cajoling more help for the fledgling government in Iraq.

The president arrived in Washington late Thursday night, concluding the first overseas trip of his second term.

Bush flew back to the nation's capital from Bratislava, Slovakia, where, earlier in the day, he spent more than an hour having what he described as a "candid and open exchange of views" on democratic values with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just the two presidents and their interpreters were in the room.

While in the Slovak capital, Bush also addressed a crowd packed into a square where protests in 1989 helped ignite the "Velvet Revolution" that brought an end to more than four decades of Communist rule. He was the first U.S. president ever to visit the country.

"Since those days of peaceful protest, the Slovak people have made historic progress," Bush told the crowd, many of whom were waving small American and Slovak flags. "You regained your sovereignty and independence. You built a successful democracy. You established a free economy."

"Every Slovak can be proud of these achievements, and the American people are proud to call you allies and friends and brothers in the cause of freedom."

Bush also saluted the Slovak government for sending troops to support U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying the support shows how a "small nation, built on a big idea, can spread liberty throughout the world."

"Slovaks know the horror of tyranny, so you're working to bring hope of freedom to people who have not known it," Bush said. "Eventually, the call of liberty comes to every mind and every soul, and one day, freedom's promise will reach every people and every nation."

According to aides, Bush raised a number of issues Thursday during his discussions with the Russian leader, including Kremlin restrictions on the media and prosecutions of Putin critics that U.S. officials believe undermine confidence in Russia's political institutions and investment climate.

But speaking to reporters afterward, Bush made it clear that his friendship with Putin remained intact, referring to him informally as "Vladimir" and calling him "the kind of fellow who when he says 'yes,' he means 'yes,' and when he says 'no,' he means 'no.'"

For his part, Putin emphatically rejected suggestions that recent moves to consolidate power in the Kremlin presaged a return to totalitarianism in his country.

"Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy," the Russian leader said. "This is our final choice, and we have no way back. There can be no return to what we used to have before."

But though Putin vowed Russia would "remain committed to the fundamental principles of democracy that have been established in the world," he also said democratic advancement "should be adequate to the current status of the development of Russia."

"The implementation of the principles and norms of democracy should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and impoverishment of the people," he said.

Bush, who has been under pressure from some conservatives back home to take a tougher line with Putin, seemed to accept at face value the Russian leader's expression of "absolute support for democracy in Russia."

"To me, that was the most important statement of my private meeting, and it's the most important statement of this public press conference," Bush said. "I can tell you what it's like dealing with the man over the last four years -- when he tells you something, he means it."

Shoring up ties with allies

The president's tour of Europe -- which took him to Belgium, Germany and Slovakia -- was designed to shore up trans-Atlantic relations frayed by the Iraq war. He broke bread in Brussels with a leading critic of the war, French President Jacques Chirac, and paid a call on another war opponent, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

While in Europe, Bush met with leaders of NATO and European Union countries, repeatedly emphasizing his view that working together to confront future challenges was more important than dwelling on past differences -- a sentiment that seemed to draw support from the Europeans as well.

All 26 NATO members agreed to help train Iraqi security forces, either with personnel or financial donations. And the EU agreed to co-host, with the United States, an international forum to coordinate aid to Iraq.

Among the geopolitical challenges that took center stage during Bush's trip were Iran's nuclear program and Syria's military occupation of Lebanon, which has risen to the top of the international agenda since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Bush and Chirac expressed united support for a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Syria to pull its troops from Lebanon, and Bush endorsed efforts by France, Britain and Germany to negotiate an agreement with Iran to curtail its nuclear ambitions -- although he stopped short of offering U.S. participation in those talks, as some European leaders have urged.

The president also sought to calm European fears that recent tough talk by American officials about Iran indicated that he was planning an attack, along the lines of the invasion of Iraq. At one point, he called such a notion "ridiculous" -- but then muddied his message somewhat by quickly adding that "all options are on the table."

Putin, Bush: No nuclear arms for Iran

Russia is helping Iran build an $800 million nuclear reactor that the United States and other Western governments fear could be used to reprocess fuel for use in nuclear weapons. Both Russia and Iran insist that the plant is being built for peaceful generation of power.

During Thursday's meetings in Bratislava, Putin and Bush agreed that Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. The Russians also "made it clear" that they will not provide nuclear fuel to operate the plant until the Iranians agree that all of the fuel will come from Russia and that it will be returned to Russia for final disposal, a safeguard against converting the fuel to weapons use, a senior Bush administration official said.

"We think that is an appropriate way to deal with this issue, at this point," the senior official told reporters in a background briefing. "The Russians have made it clear that they're not going to proceed with this until the Iranians have met all their international obligations and have satisfied the international community that they have abandoned their nuclear weapons program."

CNN's John King and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.

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