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The American President And The Russian Opposition

Nemtsov and Ryzhkov in RFE/RL's Studio With Mikhael Sokolov

Nemtsov and Ryzhkov in RFE/RL's Studio With Mikhael Sokolov

I am always intrigued -- although rarely surprised -- about how different media accounts of the exact same event can create almost diametrically opposed impressions.

Today's issue of "Vedomosti" ran a story about U.S. President Barack Obama's July 7 meeting with opposition leaders under the following headline: "Almost Without Criticism. Russian Human Rights Activists and Politicians Met With U.S. President Obama: Complaints Failed To Win His Sympathies."

Here's the money graf:

Obama disappointed them. The US president had no solutions to offer. Boris Nemtsov of Solidarity announced that future development of relations between our countries required Russia's return to democracy. Obama wholly agreed with Nemtsov but pointed out that as president, he had to take things as they were.

Funny thing is, RFE/RL's Russian Service had Nemtsov as well as opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov in the studio right after the meeting with Obama. To say they were upbeat and satisfied with the meeting would be a gross understatement.

(You can read a transcript of the whole program in Russian, moderated by RFE/RL's Mikhail Sokolov, here. You can listen to the program here.)

Here is what Ryzhkov had to say about the meeting as a whole:

I wouldn't call this an 'audience.' President Obama is not a shah, emir, or a sultan. He is a democratically elected president who won a very tough election battle. So this was a meeting of one democrat with other democrats and it was very businesslike... The meeting lasted for an hour and we covered all the hot topics related to democracy and human rights in our country. We discussed the Yukos case, freedom of expression, the absence of free elections, the inability of opposition parties to register, the violent break-up of peaceful demonstrations, and Garry Kasparov presented President Obama with a list of political prisoners in Russia. I think that after this meeting, President Obama has an accurate view of what 'sovereign democracy' is and how difficult it is for the opposition and civil society in our country.

Ryzhkov went on to say that on one hand Obama urged patience, but also encouraged them to be persistent in pursuit of their values and goals:

He said he discussed these issues with President Medvedev, including the situation in our justice system. He asked us to try to be patient and he told us to pay attention to our president's rhetoric -- about how 'freedom is better than the lack of freedom,' about democracy, about the rule of law -- and to how much this rhetoric will be reflected in reality. He also said that he understands our pessimism...He said each one of us needs to push the rock up the mountain because every change begins with small steps. We need to believe and not be skeptics and cynics and continue with our work. People who believe in democracy and human rights need to continue their fight.

Ryzhkov also noted that Obama "had an opportunity to experience our bureaucracy" when, as a U.S. Senator visiting Russia in 2005, he and Senator Richard Lugar had their flight detained for three hours at the Perm airport because customs officials wanted to search their aircraft. Ryzhkov went on to praise Obama's knowledge of Russian affairs:

He has an excellent team, some of the best Russia specialists in America...He is completely informed and it is very important for him to get a realistic picture of Russia and I think he has one. This is not a naive politician. This is not someone who arrived in a country that he doesn't understand. He has an excellent understanding of the situation here. He is addressing the issues here that he has to address as the American president. But I want to stress that the fact that he spent most of the day interacting with society is a strong signal.

For his part, Nemtsov said the opposition "raised all the principled issues: The absence of free democratic elections, the presence of out-of-control corruption, the existence of a monopolistic state system, the fact that there are political prisoners."

Nemtsov went on to say that he sympathized with the delicate balancing act Obama needs to perform, working with the current Russian authorities to address issues like Afghanistan, Iran, and arms control, while at the same time supporting democracy and human rights:

The American President needs to solve very important global issues. And he told us that he understands the problems in Russia. He also said 'I am the president right now and today and I need to solve problems of the United States and the world right now and today, together with Russia. I understand that there isn't the rule of law and an independent judiciary, but we still need to make progress on important issues.' In my opinion this is very reasonable. Of course this can't be a strategic long-term way to approach things, but from the point of view of moving forward and making the world safer, it is correct.

And finally, Nemtsov stressed that he doesn't expect Obama to fight the opposition's battles:

Liberating Russia from this corrupt bureaucracy is not Obama's obligation, it is ours. This is our battle. We don't expect help from abroad. But we believe that America as a great world power and President Obama as a world leader must know what kind of condition Russia's political system is in. We also need to strengthen our contacts with America.

Nemtsov and Ryzhkov, of course, were just two of the nine opposition figures present at the meeting. Perhaps there were others present who were indeed dissatisfied.

We'll be watching closely for the impressions of others.

-- Brian Whitmore

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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