WASHINGTON (AP) – Like the rest of an anxious world, President Bush said Thursday he's waiting to see who will wield the real power in Russia after next month's elections — departing President Vladimir Putin or his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev.
It will be interesting, the president mused, to see who shows up for Russia at the next summit of world leaders.
Bush was asked at a news conference about the future of one of the nation's most important foreign relationships, one that has been increasingly troubled. He said he, too, was eager for insights into "how Russia intends to conduct foreign policy after Vladimir Putin's presidency. And I can't answer the question yet."
Bush is not the only one puzzled by the 42-year-old Medvedev (pronounced MED'-veh-dev), who was plucked from obscurity by Putin to follow him as president after the March 2 elections. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stumbled for his name in Tuesday's presidential debate before coming up with, "Medvedev — whatever." Nevertheless, she said Medvedev was someone "who Putin can control, who has very little independence, the best we know." Clinton's rival, Sen. Barack Obama, agreed that Putin would "continue to have the strongest hand in Russia."
When Medvedev takes office, Putin will become prime minister. The suspicion is he will be the power behind the president.
When a questioner asked Bush if Medvedev would be Putin's puppet, Bush replied, "No, I wouldn't say that. That's your conclusion, not mine."
The uncertainty about the Kremlin's new leadership comes at a time of difficult relations between Moscow and Washington in disputes ranging from Kosovo's independence and Bush's proposal for new missile defenses in central Europe to the Kremlin's increasingly authoritarian stand on political, religious and press freedoms and the emergence of democracies on Russia's borders. Business between the U.S. and Russia has taken on an edgy tone, compared with the warmth in 2001 when Bush said he looked into Putin's soul and liked what he saw.
"Putin is a straightforward, pretty tough character when it comes to his interests," Bush said Thursday. "Well, so am I. And we've had some head-butts, diplomatic head-butts."
"And yet, in spit of that, our differences of opinions, we still have got a cordial enough relationship to be able to deal with common threats and opportunities," Bush said. "And that's going to be important for the next president to maintain."
Medvedev has served in the Kremlin in a series of subordinate roles and has said little about his foreign policy views. He has not criticized any of Putin's policies and has seemed intent on copying Putin even in small things, even taking up swimming and skiing. He has worked for Putin for eight years as the Russian president has clamped down on democracy, expanded the government's control and used the power of the state to crush political foes.
On Tuesday, Medvedev said he was willing to work with any future American president who isn't stuck in the past and doesn't have "semi-senile views."
The White House said Bush met Medvedev four years ago when he was a government minister. "I don't know much about Medvedev either," Bush said when asked Thursday about the limited assessments offered by Clinton and Obama. "And what'll be interesting to see is who comes to the — who represents Russia at the G8 for example."
The next meeting of the Group of Eight world powers is in Japan, July 7-9. Russia has always been represented at the presidential level.
Bush said it was important to continue work with Russia on matters such as controlling the spread of nuclear weapons and dealing with Iran and its suspected nuclear program. He credited Putin with coming up the idea to supply enriched uranium for Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. The United States and Russia say the supply of nuclear fuel means Iran has no need to continue its own uranium enrichment program — a process that could provide fuel for a reactor or fissile material for a bomb.
Bush said he was still trying to convince Putin that Russia would not be threatened by the U.S. missile defense program that is to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, two former Soviet satellites.
"I'm going to try to leave it so whoever my successor is will be able to have a relationship with whoever is running foreign policy in Russia. It's in the country's interest," Bush said. "That doesn't mean we have to agree all the time. I mean, obviously we didn't agree on Kosovo. There will be other areas where we don't agree."
With less than a year left in his own presidency, Bush tried to sum up his approach to foreign policy but caught himself when he went too far.
"Here's what I learned: I learned that it's important to establish personal relations with leaders even though you may not agree with them." He hastened to qualify that he was talking only about "certain leaders. I'm not going to have a personal relationship with (North Korea's leader) Kim Jong Il, and our relationships are such that that's impossible.
"But U.S.-Russian relations are important," Bush said. "It's important for stability."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.