BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Thursday on new efforts to keep nuclear arms out of dangerous hands, but their sharp differences over Russian backsliding on democracy spilled into an open and sometimes-prickly exchange.
Seeking common ground with a former Cold War enemy that is now a key anti-terror partner, Bush said the two leaders stressed agreements over differences.
Standing side by side, their answers to questions about U.S. concerns that Putin is moving to solidify central power and quash dissent showed the sensitivity of the topic.
"It's very important that all nations understand the great values inherent in democracy - rule of law and protection of minorities, viable political debate," Bush said. "And when I brought that - Vladimir can speak for himself on this issue. All I can tell you is he said, `Yes meant yes when we talked about values that we share.'"
"Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy," Putin said. "This is our final choice and there is no way back, there can be no return to what we used to have."
Putin added: "We are not going to make up, to invent any kind of special Russian democracy. We are going to commit to the fundamental principles that have been established in the world."
Despite those assurances, Putin had criticism for aspects of the U.S. system. And he suggested that Russians who oppose his actions can sway public opinion because they "are richer than those who are in favor."
"We often do not pay attention to that," he said.
He also compared his move to end direct popular election of regional governors to the American Electoral College process of electing presidents.
"It's not considered undemocratic, is it?" Putin said.
As the leaders met for two hours at a medieval castle overlooking the snow-covered capital and the Danube River, aides inked an agreement designed to counter conventional and nuclear terrorism, in part by restricting the availability of shoulder-fired missiles capable of bringing down aircraft.
"We agreed to accelerate our work to protect nuclear weapons and materials both in our two nations and around the world," Bush said.
Bush said they were in unison on the importance of stopping suspected nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. Putin did not address the topic.
"We agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. I appreciate Vladimir's understanding on that," Bush said. "We agreed that North Korea should not have a nuclear weapon."
The visit to Slovakia was the final leg on Bush's five-day tour to heal the trans-Atlantic rift caused by his March 2003 decision to invade Iraq without broad international support. He visited Belgium and Germany before coming here, and met with European leaders at NATO and European Union meetings in Brussels.