BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin planned to announce new measures to combat nuclear terrorism and to better safeguard nuclear arsenals, Bush administration officials said Thursday ahead of a summit between the new leaders. Bush and Putin also were expected to announce a new agreement designed to restrict commerce in shoulder-fired missiles, the officials said. Closing out a European goodwill tour, Bush was meeting Putin in this snow-blanketed capital of Slovakia, once part of the Soviet bloc. It was their first meeting since Bush began his second term as president in January. Both leaders are walking a fine line, wanting to air their grievances without undercutting generally improved relations between the old Cold War nuclear rivals who are now cooperating closely in the war on terror. High on the agenda are U.S. concerns over Putin's moves to solidify his power and to clamp down on civil and press liberties. Also drawing U.S. alarm are Putin's attempts to influence elections in Ukraine and Russia's close ties to Iran. Bush administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Bush and Putin would announce new steps to combat terrorism and to safeguard nuclear materials. The agreement will include a promise to upgrade security at Russia's nuclear plants and weapons stockpiles, new procedures for responding to possible terrorist attacks and a program to keep nuclear fuel from being diverted to use in nuclear weapons, the officials said. Ahead of the meeting, Bush expressed concerns about Putin's recent crackdown on political and press freedom. "I look forward to talking to him about his decision-making process," Bush told a group of young German business leaders Wednesday in Mainz, Germany. He said he was particularly concerned about Putin's curbs on press freedoms. "It's a complex relationship," Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said of the U.S.-Russian dynamic. Democracy in Russia remains "a work in progress," Hadley told reporters ahead of Thursday's summit. "A free and democratic Russia is better for Russia. It's better for us," Hadley said. In the 21st century, he said, Russia will gain strength "through democratic structure. And hopefully that's something they will understand as well." Bush arrived here before Putin. He and his wife, Laura, stepped from Air Force One late Wednesday to a red-carpet welcome, with a military brass band playing the anthems of both nations. A young Slovak couple dressed in native costume gave Bush bread and salt, a traditional gift of welcome and hospitality. Bush was greeted by both Slovakian President Ivan Gasparovic and Prime Minister Makulas Dzurinda. Dzurinda later told Slovak state television that the decision to hold the summit in his country was "proof that Slovakia enjoys the confidence of both the United States and Russia." Before his talks with Putin at the medieval Bratislava Castle, Bush was meeting privately with Gasparovic and Dzurinda and address Slovaks from a snowy square in downtown Bratislava. Putin was arriving Thursday. The summit comes nearly a year after Putin's strong re-election victory. However, he is in a weakened position following a series of mishaps and setbacks in both domestic and foreign policy. The setbacks include increased violence in the Chechen conflict, in particular the horrifying raid on a school in Beslan that ended in a torrent of gunfire and explosions that killed more than 330 people, half of them children. Putin also ended direct popular election of regional governors, increasing central control. In addition, he waged a campaign against the Yukos oil company and its founders. Both drew criticism at home and abroad. The visit to Slovakia was the final leg on Bush's five-day tour to heal the trans-Atlantic rift caused by his March 2003 decision to invade Iraq without broad international support. He visited Belgium and Germany before coming here, and met with nearly all European leaders at NATO and European Union meetings in Brussels. Slovakia, an ex-communist country which joined both the European Union and NATO last spring, is a staunch U.S. ally and has deployed non-combat troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States turned to Slovakia and other eastern European countries for help in Iraq after longtime allies France and Germany refused to join the U.S.-led coalition. Bush spent most of Wednesday in Germany. He and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder agreed to continue to disagree on the wisdom of the Iraq war, but vowed to seek common ground in helping to nurture what Schroeder called "a stable, democratic Iraq." They also agreed they both wanted to see a nuclear-weapons free Iran, despite some disagreements over how to ensure that. Bush expressed general support for negotiations by Germany, Britain and France that offer Iran incentives to abandon uranium enrichment. But the United States has resisted taking part in the European diplomacy and has insisted so far that Tehran should not be rewarded.
TOM RAUM by AP
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