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Obama Victory Inspires Hope, Envy In Postcommunist World

In countries where the politics is less open, some look on in envy at the victory of an African-American.
In countries where the politics is less open, some look on in envy at the victory of an African-American.
Was anyone talking about anything on November 5 other than the victory of Barack Obama in the U.S. presidential election? Certainly all of my colleagues were sharing their impressions and, in doing so, were revealing bits of the cultures and countries where they grew up and which they now spend their days covering as journalists.

At 6 a.m. I came across a woman from the Balkans who had been up all night in the office watching CNN's coverage of the vote. She was crying. At first I thought she was just tired or maybe reacting overly emotionally to Obama's win. But I was wrong.

"I am crying," she said, "because in my part of the world we are always forced to choose between two bad options, and I always have to cast my ballot for the least-bad candidate instead of voting for someone I want to see elected. The good ones never appear on the ballot at all." She was envious.

It was one way in which Obama's victory looked from afar like a real win for democracy. Compare, for instance, the situation in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, right now. There is a mayoral-election campaign going on now and many observers believe the best candidate is a man who happens to be Catholic priest and an ethnic Croat. But they say he has no chance to win -- Sarajevo's Muslim Bosniak majority would never support a non-Bosniak. Instead, the old pattern continues -- a less-qualified member of the dominant ethnic group takes the post and a better-qualified minority candidate is passed over.

Ethnicity, race, gender, religion are too often the only important issues in a campaign, rather than talent, knowledge, or energy. Once it was unthinkable that an African-American could become president of the United States. Now it has happened. Can anyone now imagine a non-Russian as president of that country? Or an ethnic Indian as prime minister of Great Britain?

In Obama's case, his victory was clear and decisive. The color of his skin might have attracted some voters and repelled others, but it was never really an issue. As former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, Obama did not put his race forward; he put forward his ideas. And he won.

A Political Culture To Envy

A friend from Kazakhstan was most impressed by the gracious concession speech of Obama's defeated rival, Republican Senator John McCain. Despite a hard-fought campaign on both sides that included some pretty harsh comments and tense moments, as soon as the vote was counted, McCain congratulated Obama and offered his support.

"A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love," McCain told supporters in Arizona late on November 4. "In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving."

For his part, Obama devoted part of his victory speech to saluting McCain. "He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves," Obama said. "He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. I congratulate him and Governor Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation's promise in the months ahead."

"In my part of the world," my Kazakh friend lamented, "opponents in elections continue to fight after the elections as well. There is no chance they would work together or call on their followers to support the person who was elected."

Of course, any American can tell you that not all such speeches are sincere and that bitter partisan rancor is often the norm between elections. But in Kazakhstan and many other countries, there are no such speeches at all. There is no effort at cooperation; there is no hope for it. My Kazakh friend was envious as well.

I spoke as well to a third colleague, from Russia. She noted that not only did the Democratic Party win the White House on November 4, but it significantly boosted its majorities in both house of Congress. American voters, who generally tend to prefer divided government, evidently overcame that tendency in this case because of the perceived urgency of the country's situation at the moment.

But such a monopoly on power is not fearful in the United States, where numerous checks and balances prevent anyone from establishing an unaccountable control over government. Most importantly, the entire House of Representatives faces reelection every two years, meaning that in a very short time American voters will have the chance to reconsider the power it has given the Democrats. And that chance to change the collective mind comes again and again, every two years.

Coincidentally, my Russian friend said, on the very day Obama was celebrating his win, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- whose ruling party has a stranglehold on the State Duma and all the country's regional legislatures -- proposed extending the term of office for Duma deputies from four years to five and the term of the president from four years to six. My Russian friend also looked enviously at the United States.

When I spoke to a colleague from Ukraine, he marveled not so much at the election itself as at the coverage of the vote by CNN. He saw journalists with access to information about the vote count and the exit polls that is inconceivable in his country. He watched as they relayed information seemingly instantaneously and without error. He noted that the politicians themselves were glued to CNN and other media for information about the voting and the results. He was envious too -- both as a journalist and as a Ukrainian.

These are just a few impressions from a variety of viewpoints, united by the common thread of envy. And maybe, in the wake of this election, tinged as well with some of the hope that seems to be sweeping the United States. We can envy the achievements of U.S. democracy, but considering the tasks facing Obama -- the financial crisis, the clash of civilizations, two ongoing wars, and more -- I don't envy him personally. God help him.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL