The Monitor's View

Obama spoke to the Russian people? Nyet.

Like China with Bill Clinton, Moscow limited the television audience for the president's big speech.

By

One way Russia's authoritarian leaders keep a grip on power is to create an external enemy – say, the US – that they can use to demagogue to their own people.

Case in point: In 2007, Vladimir Putin likened the US to the Third Reich, with "the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world."

If Washington wants real democracy in Russia, if it wants Russia to become more of a partner than an adversary, it must work diligently to dispel widespread anti-Americanism there.

President Obama artfully attempted to do this in his Tuesday speech to the graduating class of the New Economic School in Moscow. As with his Cairo speech to the world's Muslims last month, he wanted to reach Russians directly.

But who beyond the Moscow graduates heard him?

Yes, his speech was carried on television, the medium where 80 percent of Russians get their news. But it was not broadcast by any of the major channels – only on one 24-hour news outlet with limited viewership and on its radio affiliate.

The restriction – presumably imposed by the Kremlin – brings to mind former President Bill Clinton's speech at Beijing University in 1998. The authorities allowed it to be broadcast live (as opposed to being taped and censored) – but made no prior announcement of it, so few people saw it.

Mainstream Russians should have heard this Obama speech. It covered some of the usual ground, such as the common interests of both countries. But it also did the unusual by directly addressing values – and insecurities – that matter to Russians. Both can work against US-Russia relations.

For instance, Russians feel, like Rodney Dangerfield, that they don't get enough respect from much of the world. So Moscow sometimes tries to manufacture some. It will occasionally, for example, be obstructionist at the United Nations.

More than once Mr. Obama said that America "respects" Russia – for its "timeless heritage" of great artists and scientists and for the people themselves and their shared history with the US, including their tremendous sacrifice in World War II.

Russians also suffer from a feeling of diminished empire. A longing for old borders and influence underlies Russian arm-twisting in its "near abroad." Obama emphasized Russia's greatness, without endorsing the arm-twisting. He likened Russia to "a mighty river" cutting through a canyon and making its mark over time. "America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia," the president said.

And he sought to counter the widespread view that the West, through NATO enlargement, wants to encircle Russia and dominate it. "America will never impose a security arrangement on another country," he said.

Russia is not alone in its antipathy toward America's role in the world. A global survey released today by WorldPublicOpinion.org at the University of Maryland shows that US foreign policy continues to receive heavy criticism abroad – though most people say they have confidence in Obama to "do the right thing regarding world affairs."

But anti-US sentiment runs deeper in Russia than in other countries. Of people in 22 countries, only Mexicans and Pakistanis ranked lower than Russians in feeling that the US treats their country fairly. And a majority of Russians say they have little or no confidence in Obama.

Admittedly, one speech can't change much, but it can set a tone, and it's a shame that more Russians didn't hear this one.

At the same time, in a country run top-down such as Russia, perhaps talking to the up-and-coming business elite can indeed influence thinking. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – a fresh face himself – said he watched Obama's speech on TV. Ah, but did the demagoguer in chief, Mr. Putin?

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...