Bush, Putin Retreat to Kennebunkport

Kennebunkport, Maine, is the site of a visit between President Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Marshall Goldman of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies offers his insights on the meeting.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on the Bush-Putin talks from Russia specialist Marshall Goldman who joins us from Boston.

And Marshall, as we've heard from Michele Kelemen, U.S. officials are hoping for some quieter conversations. You would say Kennebunkport is the setting that offers the possibility for just that?

Mr. MARSHALL GOLDMAN (Associate Director, Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies): I think it's remarkable they picked that. First of all, it's not President George W. Bush's home. It's his father's home. And it's not a very large conference center. It's not a government conference center. It's a very reasonably small home on the water and it's a nice weekend.

And it's really quite remarkable. I've been in that living room and it's not all that large, so they're going to have to meet with each other. The kitchen is right next door. I presume Barbara Bush will be there and she'll bake popcorn for them just like she did for us. It has to be informal.

SIEGEL: Well, there's no shortage for contentious issues for Bush and Putin to talk about. But I wonder what motivation each leader has to accomplish something that resolves some of those issues this weekend. First, Bush, what's his motivation here?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, I think, President George W. Bush is now beginning to think about his legacy. You know, he came into office American-Russian relations were pretty good. After 9/11, they became excellent; we shared intelligence information. And now they deteriorated. And President George W. Bush has been asking for suggestions about what he might do to improve relations so that 20 years hence an American president then will look back and say, thank goodness, George W. Bush did these things because we now have good relations.

So I think he really is looking at history. He may have problems elsewhere, but I think in American-Russian relations he thinks he had a good chance to establish something that was enduring and better than it's turned out to be.

SIEGEL: And Vladimir Putin, you've met with President Putin, what would be his motivation to get something done here?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, I don't think he's interested just in creating tension. I -you know, I take a very hard line towards Putin. I think you quoted David Kramer there, about what's going on inside Russia, what's gone on outside Russia and it's not a happy picture.

But I think Putin actually does have a good relationship with President Bush. If you see them on television, they have a remarkable bonding association. And their body language is really striking. And I think - I would like to think he wants to establish Russia's role in the world, but at the same time become a member of the club, become a member of the G8 and establish good relations. Maybe you can't do both, but at one time it certainly looked like that would be possible.

SIEGEL: Marshall, both of these presidents are nearing the ends of their presidencies. Is it clear to you that Russia's constitution will be as this positive about Mr. Putin's retirement as our Constitution will be about George Bush's retirement?

Mr. GOLDMAN: Well, so far, it seems to be happening that way. What we - what actually takes place, well, we'll just have to wait until March next year to see. But I've heard Putin now, at least twice, say - insists that he's going to leave. If he just said that out of context, I would still have my doubts. But he put it in this framework that after he took over, he tried to bring stability to the country. The Yeltsin years he thought were very unstable - all kinds of political problems, all kinds of economic problems. And for him to run for a third term, he would have to change the constitution. As he put it, that would create instability.

Now, there might be all kinds of other deals and rumors that he might step aside for a few months, fulfill the constitutional requirements and then come back in. But I think that's a risky procedure to follow because the person who steps in the interim may not be quite so willing to give up power as Putin would like to think right now.

So I think there's a reasonably good chance. I wouldn't say it's a hundred percent, but it's (unintelligible) be good.

SIEGEL: Marshall Goldman, thanks once again for talking with us.

Mr. GOLDMAN: Sure. Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Marshall Goldman, senior scholar at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian Research. You can read analysis of the history of the U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War and a profile of President Putin at npr.org.

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President Bush and Vladimir Putin seem to have been talking past each other in recent weeks.

The Russians don't like being lectured about democracy. The Bush administration doesn't like the fiery rhetoric coming out of Putin's Kremlin.

Relations have soured on issues ranging from democracy to missile defense. Both sides at least sound like they are in a rhetorical Cold War.

It's against this backdrop that the two men go to a more quiet location to see whether they can salvage their relationship in the waning months of their presidencies.

The U.S. hopes it will be a chance to stop what one official called a rhetorical race to the bottom.

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