By Oleg Shchedrov
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Seven years after he said he had peered into the Russian leader’s soul, U.S. President George W. Bush made clear he still had a strong bond with Vladimir Putin as they met for the last time as heads of state. The personal chemistry between Bush and Putin has weathered severe rows between their two countries and was on display again as the U.S. leader held a farewell summit on the Black Sea a month before Putin steps down.
Speaking to reporters at Putin’s vacation retreat, Bush said they worked to “find ways to be agreeable when we disagree”.
“You’re not afraid to tell me what’s on your mind. And when it’s all said and done, we can shake hands,” Bush told Putin on Saturday.
Putin spoke warmly of “George”.
“I always appreciated his superior human qualities: honesty, openness and ability to hear a partner,” said Putin, standing beside the U.S. leader at a news conference after their meeting on Sunday. “This is worth a lot.”
Bush has been lambasted by critics at home as naive in his generous assessment of Putin, against a backdrop of clashes between Moscow and Washington over Iran’s nuclear program, Kosovo’s independence and NATO’s expansion plans.
Washington has enraged Moscow by quitting a Cold War treaty limiting missile defenses and preparing to deploy elements of its new missile shield in Europe. Moscow has irked Washington by pulling out of a pact limiting conventional forces in Europe.
More than once, Putin and Bush have intervened to restore calm at points when other politicians and diplomats had started saying relations had passed the point of no-return.
On Sunday, Bush stood by his initial view of the Russian leader: “A lot of times in politics you have people look you in the eye and tell you what’s not on their mind,” Bush said. “He (Putin) looks you in the eye and tells you what’s on his mind.”
The two men “have a lot in common”, one Kremlin official said. “They both respect commitment to values and simple, straightforward style.”
The two let down their hair during the informal part of the summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Saturday night.
“Bush looked great, he not only danced on stage but also did not leave it until he shook hands with nearly every member of a big folk dancing team which performed for them,” a Kremlin official who attended the dinner said.
“I’m only happy that our press corps didn’t see me try to dance the dance I was asked to do,” Bush told Putin when the two met the next day.
“We had a chance to see that you are a brilliant dancer,” Putin replied.
When Putin moves out of the Kremlin, Bush will have to deal with his protege Dmitry Medvedev for several months until he himself leaves the White House.
“My first impressions are very positive, a smart fellow,” he told the news conference after meeting Medvedev. “You can write down, I was impressed and looking forward to working with him.”
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Sochi and Conor Sweeney in Moscow; editing by Andrew Roche)
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