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Analysis: Russian-American Relations After U.S. Elections

In his initial reaction to the 2 November U.S. presidential election, even before it became official that U.S. President George W. Bush had been reelected, President Vladimir Putin said on 3 November that he was sincerely happy with Bush's apparent win, adding that Bush has proven a "reliable and predictable partner," Russian and international media reported.

Speaking at a joint Kremlin press conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been a strong supporter of Bush, Putin said that the election result showed that "the American people did not allow themselves to be intimidated" by international terrorists. He repeated a statement that he made on 18 October that the main goal of international terrorists was to prevent Bush's reelection because he has proven "a strong and steadfast politician" in the fight against terror.

Most Russian politicians agreed with Putin in welcoming Bush's reelection. Bush is more popular in Russia than in many European and Middle Eastern countries, according to international public-opinion polls taken before the election. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said on 3 November that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, which he heads, has maintained ties with the U.S. Republican Party for four years, although "the Russian leadership has always said it would respect the choice of the American people and work with any president they elect," reported.

Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov said the "positions of the U.S. president are well known to us and he has found a common language with our president, so we expect complete continuation in the development of bilateral relations," reported on 3 November.

Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, also welcomed Bush's victory, RIA-Novosti reported. "We know the Bush administration and hope that under it, bilateral relations will grow even closer," Zhirinovskii said. He added that if U.S. Senator John Kerry had won the election, the United States might have withdrawn its forces from the Middle East, and then the burden of fighting international terrorism would fall to Russia.

Federation Council International Relations Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov said on 3 November that Russia and the United States have defined a new bilateral agenda over the last four years and will continue it during Bush's second term, reported. This agenda includes combating terrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, improving global stability and meeting new security threats, and building on cooperation in the energy-security field. "Of course, the criticism of our political reforms and policy in the North Caucasus will continue, but the general line of partnership will be preserved," Margelov said.

Bilateral relations evolved considerably during Bush's first term. In the beginning, relations were rocky. The FBI arrested Union of Russia and Belarus State Secretary Pavel Borodin on charges of money laundering just as he arrived in the United States to attend Bush's January 2000 inauguration. And shortly after coming to power, the Bush administration expelled 50 Russian diplomats under suspicion of espionage. Russia retaliated with similar expulsions.

However, Moscow soon decided to close the Russian electronic-monitoring center at Lourdes, Cuba. And after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Putin joined the international antiterrorism coalition, gave his consent to the deployment of U.S. military forces in Central Asia, agreed to the revision of U.S.-Soviet strategic-weapons agreements, and more. Relations became so close that, for the first time in the history of the two countries' relations, Putin openly intervened in a U.S. election campaign, when he made clear statements in support of Bush last month. Bush has also made steps toward Russia and Putin.

At the peak of his reelection campaign, Bush made a rare gesture for a U.S. president when he spoke directly to Russian-speaking immigrants in a 26 October interview with "Novoe russkoe slovo," the largest Russian newspaper in the United States. Bush praised the contributions of Russian-speaking immigrants to their new homeland and added that he is proud of the role the Republican Party played under former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union -- a statement that might have displeased Putin, who does not hide his regrets about that collapse.

Attitudes toward the United States among Russia's political elite have also evolved over the last four years. At the beginning of Bush's term, the most ardent critics of U.S. policies toward Russia were the Communist Party and the nationalists. By 2004, however, Russian liberals began to be more concerned. They argue that Putin's political course is toward increased authoritarianism and criticize his undemocratic political reforms, efforts to control elections and the judiciary, and the suppression of the independent media -- saying that Washington has not done enough to condemn these developments.
"When one is losing one's mind and sense of reality, one tries to manage elections not only in one's own country, but also in Abkhazia, Ukraine, and, even the United States." - Kasparov

Former chess champion Garri Kasparov is the head of Committee-2008, a group of intellectuals that opposes Putin's policies. Putin aide Vladislav Surkov recently denounced the group as "a representative of the fifth column in Russia." Speaking on Ekho Moskvy on 2 November, Kasparov said that Bush is probably the most convenient partner for the Putin administration because the two presidents have good personal relations. "But as far as promoting democracy in Russia is concerned, John Kerry would probably be more instrumental as he does not have to respect the obligations that Bush has undertaken," Kasparov said. "In addition, Kerry would revive U.S. ties with the countries of 'old Europe,' and therefore his foreign policy would rely less on a 'partner' like Putin."

Kasparov added that Kerry would have changed the present international situation, possibly leading to a fall in global oil prices, which Putin has skillfully used to benefit his regime. He said that this, plus the usual Democratic Party attention to human rights, would probably have forced Putin to alter his authoritarian policies.

Kasparov said that Kerry would have been "a difficult partner" for Putin, especially since Putin "incautiously publicly supported George Bush during the U.S. presidential race." "But when one is losing one's mind and sense of reality, one tries to manage elections not only in one's own country, but also in Abkhazia, Ukraine, and, even the United States," Kasparov said.

Dmitrii Simes, director of the U.S.-based Nixon Center and an expert on U.S.-Russian relations, told Ekho Moskvy on 2 November, before the election results were known, that Putin's support of Bush has been exaggerated. "Bush might be personally grateful to Putin but, to be candid, Putin has no influence in America that would make his words have any impact on the U.S. electorate," Simes said. He added that it is a good thing that U.S.-Russian relations did not become a focus of the U.S. election campaign, as that would not have been good for Bush, Putin, or relations. "Russia will remain an important country that is involved in serious American interests," Simes said. The two countries have differences, but their points of common interest are more important. "Even if Kerry becomes president, the desire to work together would prevail, and if Bush stays, the partnership will not always be easy," he said

TV-Tsentr commentator Aleksei Pushkov told Ekho Moskvy on 2 November that many Russian analysts wrongly feared that if Kerry had won the elections, he would have taken a harder line toward Russia because he and some of his advisers have Central European origins and, therefore, supposedly harbor "anti-Russian sentiments." However, he did note that some Kerry advisers, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, were advising him to link bilateral relations with Putin's domestic political policies. These advisers argued that if Kerry expressed strong dissatisfaction with Putin's domestic policies, then Putin might change them. Pushkov, however, rejected that hypothesis on the grounds that Putin cannot allow himself to appear inconsistent at home. The only result of such pressure would be the deterioration of bilateral relations, he said.

However, Pushkov continued, because the two countries share vital areas of interest, there is a limit to the pressure that Washington can exert on Moscow. In addition, the Democrats might have become vulnerable to Republican charges that they were "losing Russia." Nonetheless, Pushkov said, it is better for Russia that Bush won the election.

Pushkov added that there is reason to believe that Bush will respond to criticisms of some of his policies -- including his Russia policy -- that emerged during the election campaign, and that this will result in new policies during his second term. "Moderate" Republicans might appear in the new Bush administration and affect bilateral relations.

Pushkov's views represent the consensus among Russian analysts, who argue that Bush will almost inevitably take a harder line toward Russia in his second term. "Ekspert," No. 40, wrote that if the West sees "that Russia is not simply trying to create needed order at home, but is actually deviating from crucial democratic norms, then it will speak to us in a much harsher tone."

[For reaction from around the world to the U.S. presidential election, see RFE/RL's webpage "World Reacts To U.S. Election".]

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