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Russia: Dim View Prevails Of United States Under Bush

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russian politicians and media are almost uniformly negative in their views of the United States under President George W. Bush. So it's not surprising that many Muscovites take a similarly dim view of their former Cold War rivals. On the eve of the Ljubljana summit, RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini talks to people in Russia's capital city to find out what they think about Bush and the prospects for his meeting tomorrow with Vladimir Putin.

Moscow, 15 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-Americanism hit a peak in Russia two years ago, after NATO's bombing campaign in Serbia and Kosovo. At the time, polls showed that over 50 percent of Russians did not think favorably of the U.S.

Since then, however, Russians' resentment of their former Cold War rivals has softened somewhat. But like critics of the United States in Western Europe, many Russians today voice concerns over what they see as growing unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy. A number of Muscovites enjoying sunny spring weather in the city's Pushkin Square expressed doubts about the Bush administration and U.S. feelings about Russia. A few said, however, that there were still things they admired about the United States.

Alexei is an engineer from Saint Petersburg. He says Russia should be careful to protect its interests in the face of what he called U.S. imperialism.

"The main characteristic of [U.S.] policy is to force its influence on the world and its desire to control second-level countries. So I think there should be an alliance between Russia and the United States -- there's no doubt that a friendship should exist. But only to a certain extent, because it seems to me that the United States would never want to see Russia as a full-fledged partner. Their [own] state interests hold a higher place than friendship."

Nina Kondakova, a mother of two, says she thinks the United States is taking advantage of her country's economic troubles by using Russia as a dumping ground for its own unwanted products:

"Bush really has us in his grip. He's proceeding according to his own interests, and I think these are personal interests on his part. The United States lives according to its own rules -- they're number one, number one everywhere. [But that's because] they make sure things are good for them -- they don't give a damn about anyone else. They can't do anything good for us -- and they don't want to, either. The products they [export to Russia] -- that's just a market [strategy], for them to fill the [Russian] market with food and clothes that they don't want or that have gone out of fashion. They send it to us and we grab it because our own production is at zero."

The Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) recently released a report that assesses Russian opinion toward the United States over the past decade. According to the study, U.S. popularity ratings dropped by 10 points earlier this year (February), following Bush's inauguration.

Many Russians attribute the downturn to Bush's tough stance on missile defense, NATO expansion, and pledges to slash financial aid to Russia. Sophia Bylova, who studies English at the prestigious Moscow Institute for Foreign Languages, says Bush's determination to push ahead with his missile defense program -- and withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in the process -- is what she considers "proof" of growing U.S. antagonism toward Russia:

"I think that the fact that [Bush] wants to tear up the ABM Treaty is an obvious expression of hostility. He just wants to get out of it as quickly [as possible]."

Sophia's sister, Olga, agrees. She says former U.S. President Bill Clinton had more respect for Russians:

"Russia is also a superpower. It's bigger in size than America. If two superpowers like Russia and America start a nuclear war, then there will be nothing left alive on earth. Bush has an especially hostile policy. He's of the opinion that Russia isn't a country and Russians aren't people. I liked the relations that Bill Clinton had with our president[s]. I just liked Bill Clinton -- he was nice to look at, and I liked him as a politician."

But despite growing anti-Bush sentiment, many polls still indicate that a majority of Russians like the United States. The VTsIOM poll showed that even with February's 10-point drop, 59 percent of Russians surveyed said they still had a "positive attitude" toward the U.S. The numbers have since rebounded, with 70 percent saying their feelings toward the U.S. are good.

So what do Russians like about the United States? Some people say that while they don't like the way the U.S. treats Russia, they do like the way it treats its own citizens.

Kondakova, the mother of two, calls the United States "a healthier place for people" and a place that respects "the rule of law."

"The attitude they have toward work, workers, and labor unions [is good]. Here in Russia, meanwhile, we aren't protected at all -- there's not an ounce of protection. And then, to some extent, [I like] their culture. I mean the fact that they've moved away from those violent action movies, from smoking, from drugs -- they won't even show it on television. But we've taken up all of those bad habits!"

Pyotr, a teenager who calls himself a "Russian nationalist," sits on a bench with a friend, strumming a guitar and taking an occasional sip of Russian beer. Pyotr says that only "old nations like Russia" with rich cultural heritages will come to dominate the world. Still, he says, the United States is more "democratic" in some regards:

"They don't have any art [in the United States]. There's not even any such thing as an American nationality. Columbus, who was not an American, discovered it. Europe is ahead of the U.S. -- in film, for example. But the music there isn't bad, because they can breathe freely. We can't. In Russia, an ordinary, alternative musician just can't get ahead if he doesn't have an influential father. In that sense, it's more developed in the United States -- and we've still got a long way to go."

Another opinion poll conducted last week asked which country was best in terms of free speech, basic rights, and other opportunities. The results showed that Russians continue to have a favorable impression of the United States, which ranked higher than Germany and Britain. One analyst warned, however, that this doesn't mean Russians think less of their Western European neighbors. Russians, he said, are simply more used to comparing themselves with the United States -- a psychological holdover from the Cold War era.