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Russian People Swayed By Obama Diplomacy, But Kremlin Another Matter

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev praised their meeting, but will the spirit of cooperation and compromise last?
U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev praised their meeting, but will the spirit of cooperation and compromise last?
MOSCOW -- The first time Barack Obama visited Moscow, four years ago, he found himself detained for hours in a provincial airport.

The then-junior Democratic senator from Illinois was touring weapons facilities with Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who called Russia "a dysfunctional state where the left and right hand don't know what either is doing."

Obama's treatment this time was different. Inside a gilded Kremlin hall on July 6, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev lavished praise on his meeting with Obama, saying it would influence developments around the world.

Obama's first trip to Russia as U.S. president this week was part of his ongoing overhaul of U.S. foreign policy. He sought to begin overcoming what Washington characterizes as the Kremlin's "zero-sum" approach to relations with the United States, and observers say his message played as well as he could have hoped.

In a major foreign policy speech delivered to business school graduates inside an exhibition hall next to the Kremlin, Obama criticized what he called Moscow's old assumptions. Among them, he said, is the drive to compete with the United States by carving out opposing spheres of influence.

"These assumptions are wrong," Obama said. "In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chessboard are over."

Working Together

Obama cited the example of Georgia. Russia's invasion there last year sent relations with the United States to Cold War lows. Obama said recognition of state sovereignty should be the foundation for international relations.

Moscow should occupy its "rightful place as a great power," he suggested, not by further antagonizing its neighbors, but instead by cooperating with Washington on nonproliferation, missile defense, battling extremism, and trade.

The Obamas were warmly welcomed in the Russian capital.
The president also indirectly criticized the Kremlin's authoritarianism by praising democratic governance, human rights, and a free press.

"The arc of history shows that governments which serve their own people, survive and thrive," he said. "Governments which serve only their own power do not."

Obama didn't mention Russia in the same breath, and said the United States was not seeking to impose "any system of government on any other country."

"We haven't always done what we should have on that front," he added.

Warm Reception

That message was well received by Russians, who strongly opposed the war in Iraq and other U.S. policies. Outside the hall after Obama's address, regional governor and former opposition leader Nikita Belykh praised the speech, saying Obama was diplomatic but clear in stating he would not compromise universal values.

"I think it will improve how Russians view the United States," he said.

A public opinion poll ahead of the summit showed a majority of Russians were suspicious of the United States. Seventy-five percent said Washington abuses its power.

During the conflict with U.S. ally Georgia last summer, many in Russia believed Washington had pressured Tbilisi to start the war, an allegation made in the state-controlled media.

Many Russians are especially upset over U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Europe, which the government says is aimed at Russia.

But on Moscow's main avenue this week, people said they liked Obama and hoped the summit would improve relations.

Veronika Trofimova echoes the words of many. "I like Obama," she says. "He's more reserved and diplomatic."

Aleksei Chadayev says Obama represents a "completely new America."

"Relations went from very good in the 1990s to very bad," he says. "Now they're moving back in the opposite direction."

As Barack Obama visited Moscow, RFE/RL correspondents asked Russians what they think of the U.S. president -- and the new prospects for U.S.-Russian relations.

After his speech, Obama attended meetings with top businessmen, opposition politicians, and human rights activists. He told them resetting relations with Russia was as much about renewing dialogue between the two countries' civil societies as between their governments.

Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch praised Obama's emphasis on rights, freedom, and good governance.

"He said in particular that those values were not just American values, but rather universal values," she said. "That was really important."

...But Only So Warm

Less clear is how Obama's visit played with the man most Russians believe runs their country. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared dour and uncomfortable when the two met for breakfast at Putin's residence on July 7.

Journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov anchored Russia's most popular news program until his channel, NTV, was seized by a state-controlled company when Putin came to power. He says he doubts U.S. relations with Russia can really be reset any time soon.

"Anti-Americanism has become a systemic part of the Russian political system," he says. "And the Russian political class has a long way to go to overcome it."

Boris Nemtsov On Obama's Visit

Nemtsov On Obama's Visit

After his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Moscow, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told RFE/RL what the talks mean for the opposition, and what signals they send to the Kremlin. Play

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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