MOSCOW – After reaching out to the Islamic world in speeches in Turkey and Egypt, President Barack Obama sought once more to speak directly to the hearts and minds of another audience that has been hostile to the United States: the Russian public.
Obama’s address Tuesday to graduates of an elite Moscow university, part of a generation eager to see Russia’s power and influence restored, touched on Russians’ suffering in the post-Soviet world and painted a picture of a democratic future.
Just as the president sprinkled his speeches in the Middle East with references to the Quran and partnership with the Muslim world, Obama spoke knowledgeably to Russians about issues close to their hearts. And he quietly criticized Russia’s increasingly authoritarian politics and aggressive foreign policy – without lecturing or accusing the Kremlin.
His words appeared to have a strong impact on the likely future leaders at the New Economic School.
“He speaks in such a way that he doesn’t hide the problems behind the words,” said Mikhail Filkin, a 20-something graduate of the school, founded in the early 1990s. “He was very persuasive.”
Several times, Obama made references that might sound like platitudes anywhere else – but that struck a powerful chord with Russians.
When the president warned that “a great power does not show strength by demonizing and dominating other countries,” the students instantly recognized the reference to Russia’s war last year with neighboring Georgia.
“I think we have to be more friendly and respectful toward our nearest neighbors,” said graduate Diana Lachinova.
Obama called the graduates “the last generation born when the world was divided,” and urged them to move beyond the political legacies of the Cold War and Russia’s imperial past.
“There is the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another,” he said. “And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another. These assumptions are wrong.”
His criticism seemed directed at the Russian leadership, including President Dmitry Medvedev, which has asserted repeatedly that Russia has a “privileged” sphere of power in the region that the Soviet Union once dominated. Last week, Obama said that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who’s widely viewed as the most powerful man in Russia, has “one foot in the old ways of doing business.”
Political analyst Nikolai Petrov predicted that the speech “will be accepted very well, not only by this audience, which is not your average audience, but by Russians in general.”
Petrov said Obama pushed for Russian reform with diplomatic finesse. “It was done delicately, and at the same time pretty decisively.”
Recent opinion polls showed many Russians skeptical or unsure about the new U.S. president.
A Gallup poll conducted this spring showed that 34 percent of Russians disapproved of his administration, while only 20 percent approved and 47 percent either weren’t sure or refused to answer. The results were based on face-to-face interviews with 2,042 Russians ages 15 and older, conducted between April and June. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
By contrast, Obama has enjoyed adoring crowds in travels across Western Europe, where he is overwhelmingly popular.
On Saturday, anchorman Sergei Brylyov of the state-run Rossiya network noted that U.S. experts were calling on the Kremlin to give up what the West sees as its dreams of a restored empire.
“In short, Russia needs to know its place,” Brylyov said, acidly.
But once the summit started, state-controlled media has provided relatively upbeat coverage.
But despite the past several years of scorching rhetoric and Cold War-style gamesmanship, there is still a deep vein of affection and admiration for the U.S. in Russia. And both the political leadership and ordinary Russians continue to measure their country’s achievements against those of the U.S., another continental nation with tremendous natural wealth and globe-straddling ambitions.
Even as the Kremlin welcomed Obama as a negotiating partner, it seemed to signal that it is not prepared to bend to pressure on human rights issues. A Moscow judge refused a request by lawyers for the former oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky to send his case back to prosecutors for review. Human rights groups here cite the case of Khodorkovsky, a Putin foe, as a prime example of the government’s use of selective prosecution and pliant courts to achieve political ends.
The government has trumpeted the Obama summit as proof that Russia has rejoined the ranks of world powers.
For the White House, the summit was a chance to persuade Moscow to support rather than oppose crucial U.S. initiatives regarding Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.
Washington hoped to prevent U.S.-Russia tensions from erupting into armed conflicts between Moscow and former Soviet states, such as Ukraine and Georgia, which find themselves at odds with the Kremlin.