Show Goes On at G-8; Lebanon Dominates Side Talk

The formal agenda of this weekend's G-8 economic summit meeting in Russia will hold. But away from the structured sessions, President Bush, Russia's President Putin and other leaders are occupied by the crisis in the Middle East.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This escalating violence in the Middle East is overshadowing this weekend's meetings at the Group of Eight economic powers in St. Petersburg, Russia. President Bush spoke about the situation during a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier today.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The solution, short-term solution, is for Hezbollah to stop the attacks. The longer-term solution is for nations around the world and nations in the neighborhood to support those who support the advance of democracy.

SIMON: Presidents Bush and Putin are holding their own one-on-one meetings in advance of the official start of the G8 Summit this evening. It's the first time that Russia has hosted the Summit and it comes as President Bush's special relationship with President Putin is coming under increasing scrutiny and strain. NPR's Don Gonyea joins us from St. Petersburg. Don, thanks for being with us.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And what's the president want to accomplish?

GONYEA: Well, he did announce an agreement to coordinate efforts to stop the transfer of illicit weapons around the world. So that's something concrete that they've announced already today. Additionally, obviously there are all these pressing issues out there. There's the Middle East, the current crisis. Both these leaders said they want the violence to stop, but they differ. Putin says Israel's use of force needs to be balanced. That was the word he used, balanced. On Iran, the U.S. wants sanctions, Putin has resisted. Mr. Bush is trying to win him over. Both do say there should be no nuclear weapons in Iran. They both agree on that broad point. Same with North Korea. President Bush wants to further isolate that nation in the wake of those missile tests from earlier this month. He'd like Putin's backing, but again no resolution on that here today.

SIMON: Don, a while back President Bush famously announced that he had shaken Mr. Putin's hands and looked into his eyes and was able to get a sense of his soul, and liked it. A lot of history has happened then. What's been the single biggest irritant in U.S./Russian relations?

GONYEA: It's what the U.S. sees as Putin's increasingly authoritarian hand. There's worry about human rights and a crackdown on the press in Russia and a crackdown on political dissidence. President Bush is very diplomatic when he talks publicly about this. Today he said he always raises such concerns in person with Putin, and in private, and he said he learns a lot from the discussion, and today at one point he said he doesn't insist that Russia have a U.S.-style democracy.

SIMON: Well, we have a - let's listen to what President Putin says about - someone asked a question about the state of Russian democracy.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through Translator) Nobody knows better than us how we can strengthen our own nation. But we know for sure that we cannot strengthen our nation without developing democratic institutions and this is the path that we'll certainly take, but certainly we will do this by ourselves.

SIMON: It doesn't sound like he's asking for a lot of input from President Bush or much of anyone else.

GONYEA: Indeed. At one point, President Bush mentioned the new democracy in Iraq during that press conference and Putin quickly jumped in and said, and this is a quote, we certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq. So it seemed like more than a bit of a dig there.

SIMON: Rest of the G8 leaders are going to be arriving in St. Petersburg today. How are they are going to be able to focus on economic issues and other concerns, given this breaking news from the Mid East?

GONYEA: There's a lot of structure to a G8 meeting and the agenda, run by Russia, remains, and formal talks will proceed as planned. But look for discussion on the Middle East to occupy the less structured sessions and any one-on-one sessions that are held between individual leaders who are coming here.

SIMON: NPR's Don Gonyea speaking with us from the site of the G8 Summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. Don, thank you very much for being with us.

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