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Russians Watch U.S. Presidential Race With Interest

  • Victor Yasmann

Not very competitive in Russia

Not very competitive in Russia

Russians are following the U.S. presidential campaign with rapt interest, despite the constant drumbeat of anti-Americanism coming from the country's main television channels -- or, maybe, because of it. An opinion poll in June found that nearly 30 percent of Russians were interested in the election and more than half thought the results in the United States would be significant for the world in general and for Russia in particular.

The dynamism and drama of the U.S. election campaign -- with open and sometimes contentious debates among the candidates on national television -- present a sharp contrast to the controlled and predictable elections held in Russia. While U.S. elections often look like a lavish show in which average voters play a visible and important role, recent Russian elections have come across more like a dull Soviet-era spectacle that people watch only out of pure inertia.

One indication of the intense interest in the U.S. campaign is the large number of websites and blogs in Russia set up to follow it. Some of the main Internet news providers have set up special pages providing quite detailed daily coverage of the far-off race. The largest of these is, set up by the influential pro-Kremlin ideologue Gleb Pavlovsky. Since Dmitry Medvedev became president, Pavlovsky has managed to maintain his post as an adviser to the presidential administration and, according to press reports, has been hired as a political consultant to Medvedev's team. Pavlovsky's project, though, is more devoted to critical materials about the United States than to the election itself.

The only candidate to whom an entire Russian website is devoted is Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive nominee from the Democratic Party. The site was set up by Obama supporters living in Russia and, according to their statements, has no connection with the official Obama campaign. There is no information on the site about who created it and no indication that it has the backing of the Kremlin -- although two state television channels, Rossia and the English-language Russia Today, have covered it positively.

President Medvedev has already articulated the predictable official line on the U.S. election: Russia will work with whomever is elected and neither side can avoid cooperating with the other on a range of vital international matters.

Of course, this is what was to be expected. However, in recent months there have been some subtle and possibly revealing nuances in views of the election and the way it is being covered in the Russian media. Over the last eight years, of course, former President Vladimir Putin was glaringly sympathetic to outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush. He publicly supported Bush during the 2004 presidential campaign and afterward. Many analysts have argued that deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations over the last five years or so were held together largely on the basis of the personal contacts between Bush and Putin. The established wisdom of Cold War-style American Sovietologists that bilateral relations are more pragmatic and predictable when a Republican administration is in power seemed to hold sway.

Toward the end of the Putin presidency, disagreements developed along many lines and Russian television added a definite dose of criticism of U.S. "neocons" to its regular diet of anti-Americanism. In February, Rossia state television broadcast a program called "Empire Of Good" that accused Bush and the neocons around him of every conceivable sin. As the campaign in the United States developed, pro-Kremlin commentators leveled their harshest criticism at the presumptive Republican Party candidate, Arizona Senator John McCain, who is well-known in Russia for his harsh anti-Moscow rhetoric.

However, it soon became impossible to avoid the fact that, as far as many issues close to Russian interests are concerned, the positions of Democrats and Republicans don't differ much. Both candidates support NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, for instance, with Obama even co-sponsoring a Senate resolution on the matter. Both parties acknowledge that key problems like Iran's nuclear ambitions and global security must be resolved in coordination with Russia.

Therefore, maybe Medvedev's bland statement on the election is, after all, the best way of summing up the situation. The campaign is a diverting exercise in Moscow, but when it is over, no matter who is elected, the two countries will have to get down to work -- hopefully in an atmosphere of less inflammatory rhetoric.

Victor Yasmann is an analyst with RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL