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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush Says Russia Derailed Reforms

APU.S. President George W. Bush, flanked by Czech President Vaclav Klaus, right, and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, speaking at Prague Castle on Tuesday.
PRAGUE -- U.S. President George W. Bush, already engaged in a dispute with Russia over a new U.S. missile defense system, risked fueling tensions further Tuesday by saying Moscow had "derailed" once-promising democratic reforms.

In a speech celebrating democracy's progress around the globe -- and noting places where improvements could be made -- Bush said free societies emerged "at different speeds in different places" and should reflect local customs.

But he said certain values were universal to all democracies and rapped several countries for not embracing them.

"In Russia, reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," the U.S. president said, speaking at a democracy conference in Prague organized by former dissidents.

Bush asserted that his being able to discuss Russia's democratic backsliding under President Vladimir Putin's leadership was indicative of the strong relationship between Russia and the United States.

"America can maintain a friendship and push a nation toward democracy at the same time," he said.

But the lecture was not likely to be well-received by Putin, who is already riled over what he sees as unwelcome U.S. meddling in Russia's sphere of influence -- specifically, U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Putin and other Russian officials have made threatening statements, including that Russia would have no choice but to boost its military in response to the proposed system. Moscow believes the system -- with a radar base planned for the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in neighboring Poland -- would be designed to target Russian missiles.

Putin warned over the weekend that Moscow could take "retaliatory steps" including aiming nuclear weapons at U.S. military bases in Europe. China joined Russia on Tuesday in saying the shield could touch off a new arms race.

"Part of a good relationship is the ability to talk openly about our disagreements," Bush said in the speech at Czernin Palace. "So the United States will continue to build our relationships with these countries, and we will do it without abandoning our principles or our values."

Bush said this same approach applied to other allies with difficult democratic records, naming Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China.

"China's leaders believe that they can continue to open the nation's economy without also opening its political system," Bush said.

He said the "worst dictatorships" could be found in Belarus, Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran and Syria. He also criticized Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Vietnam as places where progress had been made, but now "freedom is under assault."

The conference was hosted by Natan Sharansky, a former prisoner of the Soviet regime who has continued to champion freedom, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who led the Velvet Revolution that ended communism in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989.

With the Iraq war raging and that country in disarray, critics say there is widespread skepticism worldwide about Bush's "freedom agenda" -- the byproduct of his promise to advance democracy in every corner of the globe.

But Bush claimed the mantle of democratic warrior. "I pledged America to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," he said. "Some have said that qualifies me as a dissident president. If standing for liberty in the world makes me a dissident, then I'll wear the title with pride."

Earlier, Bush and the Czech Republic's leaders defended the plans for the missile shield here against fierce opposition, coming from the local population as well as Russia. "The people of the Czech Republic don't have to choose between being a friend of the United States or a friend with Russia," Bush said at a joint appearance with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and President Vaclav Klaus in the medieval Prague Castle. "You can be both. We don't believe in a zero-sum world."

Standing on soil that was in the Soviet orbit less than 20 years ago, Bush made a declaration not thought necessary for decades: "The Cold War is over."

Bush said he would make his case to Putin on Thursday, when they meet on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Germany.

"My message will be Vladimir -- I call him Vladimir -- that you shouldn't fear a missile defense system," Bush said. "As a matter of fact, why don't you cooperate with us on a missile defense system? Why don't you participate with the United States?"

Klaus applauded Bush's promise to make "maximum efforts" with Putin.