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Obama's visit to Russia stirs hope for a renewed partnership

Since President Obama took office, twice as many Russians report 'positive attitudes' toward the US. But skepticism continues to dominate ties between Washington and the Kremlin.

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On Monday, just as Obama is arriving, Russia will wrap up massive military exercises on its border with Georgia, timed to remind the world that Moscow sees the former Soviet Union as its special "sphere of influence." Russian leaders have repeatedly said that NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia would cross a "red line" that might lead to conflict.

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"It's quite clear that Obama is less engaged in the post-Soviet region than Bush was," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "But it's also obvious that he will never say that NATO expansion is over. So, the best we can hope for is caution on Washington's part. This region holds big potential for unpredictable explosions."

One ray of light is Moscow's growing willingness to support the struggling US-led Western operations in Afghanistan. Russian news agencies reported Friday that a deal would be inked between Obama and Medvedev to allow NATO to use a Russian "transport corridor" to resupply its forces with weaponry as well as non-lethal equipment. And last month, apparently with Russian acquiescence, the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan relented on a previous decision and agreed to allow US forces continued access to the Manas airbase, a vital link in Afghan resupply efforts.

Chess match over democracy

But controversy seems likely to attend Obama's efforts to reach out to Russia's beleaguered dissident community, which will include meetings with nongovernmental organizations, opposition parties and anti-Kremlin activists, such as chess champion Garry Kasparov. Obama will also match a recent controversial move by Medvedev, which riled Russian conservatives, by granting an interview to Russia's leading opposition newspaper, the weekly Novaya Gazeta.

In a Monitor OpEd last week, the director of advocacy for the Washington-based human rights watchdog Freedom House, Paula Schriefer, argued that Obama should go further, and use his Tuesday speech at Moscow's New Economic School to deliver a pro-democracy message to the Russian-speaking world over the heads of Kremlin leaders and the state-controlled media.

Some Russian liberals say Obama should be frank, but careful in what he says.

"I think people here might have a negative attitude," of an Obama speech that sounds critical of Russian authorities, says Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy chair of the liberal Yabloko Party, which lost its parliamentary representation five years ago amid a Kremlin crackdown on small parties.

"If the US looks like it's trying to teach us how to live, it will just play into the hands of Russian conservatives," he adds. "The best way to promote Russian democracy is to improve relations. The more positive ties between our countries, the better things will be."