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Last Updated: Monday, 20 December, 2004, 18:20 GMT
Bush wants stronger Russia ties
Bush and Putin during their meeting in Chile
The last meeting between Putin and Bush in Chile was 'rather cool'
US President George W Bush has reiterated his desire to develop a stronger relationship with Russia.

He is expected to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Slovakia in February.

Mr Bush said the two men had some disagreements but said it was a vital relationship and they were working together to defeat terrorism.

Meawhile, the US democracy-monitoring group Freedom House said Russia had fallen to the status of "not free".

Washington has previously expressed concerns about Russia's role in the Ukrainian election, the Yukos affair and Putin's political reforms.

Russia's step backward into the Not Free category is the culmination of a growing trend under President Vladimir Putin to concentrate political authority
Jennifer Windsor,
Freedom House
But Mr Bush told a news conference in Washington: "As you know, Vladimir Putin and I have got a good personal relationship. I intend to keep it that way.

"Obviously we have some disagreements. But this is a vital and important relationship."

Mr Bush also touched upon Iraq, saying that the election due next month was the beginning of a process that would lead to freedom.

He acknowledged that the training of Iraqi security forces had had mixed success, but said he was confident that terrorists would not disrupt the democratic process.

Worrying trend

As Mr Bush made his statement, Freedom House lowered Russia to the status of "not free" in its own classification.

This puts Russia far behind some of other former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine and Georgia.

Freedom House, an independent US-based organisation that tracks the progress of civil freedoms around the world, called Russia's retreat from freedom "the year's most important political trend".

It has never given the country a "not free" status since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"Russia's step backward into the Not Free category is the culmination of a growing trend under President Vladimir Putin to concentrate political authority, harass and intimidate the media, and politicize the country's law-enforcement system," said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor.

She said it marked "a dangerous and disturbing drift toward authoritarianism in Russia, made more worrisome by Mr Putin's recent heavy-handed meddling in political developments in neighboring countries, such as Ukraine".

Rice caution

Earlier on Monday, Mr Putin's press secretary Aleksey Gromov said that the two presidents would meet in Slovakia's capital Bratislava on 24 February.

Their last meeting in Chile was described by press as rather cool, as Mr Bush pointed out Russia non-democratic trends to Mr Putin.

The new meeting will take place after Mr Bush's current National Secirity Advisor Condoleezza Rice becomes Secretary of State.

Ms Rice, an expert on Russia, is believed to take a more cautious stance on relations with Moscow.

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