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Another look into Putin's soul?

By Jill Dougherty
CNN Moscow Bureau Chief

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (CNN) -- Almost four years ago, when U.S. President George W. Bush first met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia, it seemed he'd found a kindred spirit when it came to democratic values.

"I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country," Bush declared after their 2001 visit.

Now the Bush administration says it's worried about the country Putin is creating.

"It is important that Russia make clear to the world that it is intent on strengthening the rule of law, strengthening the role of an independent judiciary, permitting a free and independent press to flourish," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this month.

"These are all the basics of democracy."

Some examples, U.S. officials say:

  • The arrest and trial of the former head of Yukos oil, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the dismantlement of his company
  • Kremlin control of Russia's mass media
  • Political changes Putin introduced after the Belsan school massacre that put more power in his hands
  • The White House also is frustrated with Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran and missile sales to Syria.

    And U.S. Senator John McCain says Putin must be pressured to keep a promise to pull Russian troops out of neighboring Georgia.

    "Sooner or later he has got to realize that the path he is on will eventually bring his government down," McCain says. "I mean you cant continue this kind of consolidation of power and not expect to be isolated, at least to some degree, in the world."

    As he prepares for Thursday's meeting in Bratislava, Bush faces pressure to reconsider his early verdict.

    "When you gaze into souls, it's something you should update periodically, because souls can change," says Richard Perle, a conservative with close ties to the Bush White House.

    But White House officials also stress an upside, calling Putin a strong ally in the war on terror.

    And in much of Europe there is less concern than Bush hears back in Washington.

    "On the fundamental question, 'Is Russia moving away from us or against us,' we don't think so. We think Putin has the right instinct," says Wolfgang Ischinger, German ambassador to the United States.

    When it comes to "people power" revolutions like Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," which recently brought Viktor Yushchenko to power, Bush may see it as democracy in action -- but Putin does not.

    "The most dangerous thing is to think up a system of permanent revolution -- now the Rose Revolution or the Blue Revolution," Putin said.

    "Of course, we should support and help democracies, but if we embark on the road of permanent revolutions, nothing good will come from this."

    While Bush may be preparing to give Putin some advice on democracy, the Russian president sounds in no mood to hear it.

    "I'm afraid Mr. Bush is going to find that Mr. Putin doesn't think he has a problem with democracy, really," says Andrew Kuchins of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

    "For Mr. Putin, he'll look at the experience of Russian democracy under the last four years of his administration. He'll compare it with the Yeltsin administration and in his mind -- and I think he believes this -- he'll make the argument that Russia really is more democratic."

    A senior U.S. diplomat says Bush will raise the issue of values "as a friend who wants to be a partner -- not to isolate Russia."

    But Putin thinks isolating Russia may be what Bush has in mind.

    "I don't think this is the purpose of American policy, although we will have a meeting with President Bush, it's scheduled for the near future, and I will certainly ask him if this is really the case," Putin said recently.

    While the U.S. president may be on a mission to spread democracy throughout the world, the Russian president says his country already has democracy -- Russian style.

    CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report

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