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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May, 2005, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK
Europe trip buoys Bush

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, with President Bush

So far, it has been a pretty impressive balancing act.

President George W Bush has looked relaxed and smiling during his visit to Europe - whether he has been joking about the president of Lithuania's age, or driving in President Putin's vintage car.

President Bush and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga
Bush's speech in Latvia did not please the Russians
His body language has reflected the fact that the diplomatic side of the visit has been going well - on the surface, at least, much better than many had predicted.

In Latvia, President Bush was in the company of like-minded friends.

The three Baltic leaders saluted him; the Latvians even awarded him their highest civilian honour.

In these former Soviet republics, which are now Nato allies and EU members, the president's second term message about the need to spread freedom and democracy resonates loudly and clearly.

So it was in the Latvian capital, Riga, that he chose to give a speech in which he urged Russia to embrace the democracies on its border, tacitly called on Moscow to improve its own democratic standards and called for free and fair elections in Belarus - in his words, "the last dictatorship in Europe".

Personal relationship

The Moscow leg of the journey had the potential to be very different.

Vladimir Putin and George W Bush
But it did not seem to upset relations between the two leaders
The Kremlin had complained about Mr Bush's itinerary, argued over his view of post-war history and even - in an interview that was broadcast on US television on Sunday - questioned whether America's electoral system was democratic.

But neither President Bush nor his host President Putin wanted the Moscow VE Day event overshadowed by a diplomatic row.

That is why we saw the images of the two men on a joy ride at Mr Putin's country residence and heard about the fact that their family dinner had overrun by almost an hour.

The two leaders did discuss Mr Bush's Riga speech in their 40-minute, one-on-one meeting.

According to the US national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, the Russians disagreed with some of the speech, but agreed with other parts of it.

Freedom message

The Kremlin will - for example - have liked Mr Bush's reference to the need for countries to respect the rights of minorities - a comment aimed at the Baltic countries and their Russian-speaking populations.

And that appears to be the way that the US-Russian relationship is going.

In some areas - such as the Middle East or the fight against terrorism - they will continue to co-operate.

In others, they will disagree, testing, but - so far, at least - not noticeably harming the two leaders' personal relationship.

Critics of Mr Bush point to the danger in relying too much on the chemistry between two plain-speaking leaders - but that does not seem to concern the White House.

Nothing, it seems, will deflect Mr Bush from his goal of making the spread of freedom and democracy his foreign policy legacy.

The success of this trip will only reinforce his resolve.

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