Putin Responds to Bush Criticism

President Vladimir Putin, in an apparent response to criticism by U.S. President George W. Bush, said Tuesday that Russia was committed to the democratic ideal but would pursue it in its own way.

In televised remarks two days before a scheduled meeting with Bush in Bratislava, Slovakia, Putin noted that Russia had chosen a democratic path 14 years ago "not in order to make itself agreeable to someone, but for its own good."

"Naturally, the fundamental principles of democracy and the institutions of democracy must be adapted to the reality of today's life in Russia, to our traditions and history," he said. "And this is something that we will do on our own."

Under Putin's presidency, the Kremlin has tightened its control over the media, the legal system, parliament and regional governments. Putin has sought to justify these steps by arguing that Russia must build a stronger state to fight terrorism.

Speaking in Brussels on Monday at the start of a four-day trip to Europe, Bush expressed concern about such developments.

"For Russia to make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law," Bush declared.

Putin said "an amiable point of view from the outside, even a critical point of view, will do us no harm. Conversely, it will only help us." But he stressed that discussion of democracy "should always be a two-way dialogue."

"We are against the use of such problems as an instrument of attaining one's foreign policy objectives, or turning Russia into an amorphous state," he said.

The bulk of Putin's comments stressed the common interests of Russia and the United States.

"Indeed, the president of the United States has called me his friend on many occasions, and I consider him to be my friend, too," Putin said.

"As for the fundamental relations between Russia and the United States ... these relations have, probably, never been at such a high level as today," Putin said. "Both the level of trust and the level of interaction on key problems of the present-day world are very high."

Some Russian human rights leaders welcomed Bush's statement, but said it must be accompanied by action.

Alexei Arbatov, a former State Duma deputy who is a leader of the Yabloko party, said at a Moscow news conference that Bush's comments about democracy did not carry much weight because his administration's record of unilateral action in international affairs undercut the impact of his words.

"Russia can respond that 'you're no better,'" Arbatov said. "For us, being a Russian democratic party, it's more useful when European countries are talking about democracy, in particular countries of the European Union, because their reputation in those matters is a lot higher than the U.S. reputation."

"It is clear that Bush pronounced these words in front of an audience that actually wanted to hear him say that," said Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran human rights leader who heads the For Human Rights movement. "A lot will depend on the game that George Bush is playing. If he meets with Putin in two days, looks the latter in the eyes and says: 'You know, Vladimir, I only said this for the public; it was just a smoke screen, do not worry,' then Bush's statement yesterday will not have much meaning and the overall situation will not change."

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow bureau contributed to this report.