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In One Small Russian Town, Obama Receives Mixed Reception

  • Kevin O'Flynn

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama in the Kremlin. But how do ordinary Russians see the U.S. president's first official visit?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama in the Kremlin. But how do ordinary Russians see the U.S. president's first official visit?

YESSENTUKI, Russia -- On his first visit to Russia as U.S. president, Barack Obama is trying to "reset" relations after they descended into acrimony during the previous administration.

In the sleepy spa town of Yessentuki in Russia's North Caucasus residents generally welcomed Obama.

Despite good first impressions, however, many reserved judgment on what Obama would do for Russia in the future.

Sixty-year-old Syoma Kalakarides says he liked what he had seen of Obama on television, calling him "a good guy, a nice person. You can sign agreements with him, point by point. He suits our politicians, he's a good guy. God give him health. Let there be more like him."

Despite the war in Chechnya and sporadic violence in other neighboring republics, life in Yessentuki has remained relatively calm.

The town every years hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists -- mainly Russians -- who come to enjoy the pungent mineral waters, massages, and mud therapies.

Aleksandr, a construction foreman, says he was impressed by the vitality of the new U.S. president. But he quibbled with Obama's emphasis on talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, saying it is still Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who is the more influential of the two.

"He is a young, energetic man. I think something good will come out of it. The meeting with Putin will decide everything," Aleksandr says.

Missile Concerns

Obama met Putin for a cordial breakfast meeting on July 7, a day after the announcement of an agreement to reduce nuclear arms with President Dmitry Medvedev. Ahead of his visit, Obama had warned that Putin needed to abandon his Cold War ways in order to fully engage with the United States.

Others in Yessentuki were less enthusiastic about Obama, and said they remained worried by issues like the proposed U.S. missile-defense shield in Central Europe, which Moscow sees as a threat to its security.

Darya Gromov, a 24-year-old accountant and new mother of a baby boy, said she thought the issue would be crucial to the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

"They say on the news that they did well and signed an agreement about nuclear arms and strategic plans, but about Obama himself it's hard to say," Darya says.

"They say he'll be fine toward Russia, but we'll see. Will the PRO [missile-defense system] be the sticking point? If that theme continues, then there will be problems."

Others were even less willing to see the United States and its new president in a good light.

Aleksandr Gromov, a 40-year-old former serviceman, says he believed it was in U.S. interests to make Russia weak.

"Roughly speaking, the U.S. is destroying our country from the inside. I think that they're doing it so that we give up our arms," Gromov says.

"They're just delaying things so they can do what they want up until the moment it's all over. It's PR."

Other Yessentuki residents were simply uninterested in Obama's visit. "I don't know the man personally so I can't say anything" one woman says.

Even without that personal knowledge, however, she admits her impressions of Obama were more positive than those of his predecessor, George W. Bush.