TOPICS > Politics

New Relationship: U.S. and Russia

May 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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SIMON MARKS: In Moscow this week, the hottest ticket in town is not for Friday’s state dinner at the Kremlin with President Bush, it’s for “Star Wars.” The new American blockbuster opened here this past weekend, and is playing on every big screen in the city. 11 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian moviegoers are much like moviegoers everywhere else, captivated by Hollywood and the U.S. entertainment industry. But stop some of them after the show, and you’ll find that many distinguish between U.S. fiction and their perceptions of fact.

WOMAN ON STREET (Translated): There’s too much dictating going on from America. I don’t like Bush. I have serious doubts about his intellectual abilities.

MAN ON STREET (Translated): It seems as though America is a country that likes to dictate its will to other countries. You have to make some decisions, taking other opinions into account. Bush is a peasant, a cowboy. Putin is much better. He speaks better, he’s more educated, or at least that’s my impression.

MAN ON STREET (Translated): I don’t like what America does. I think the Americans should pay more attention to the opinions of other nations, the United Nations especially.

SIMON MARKS: Though American music dominates the airwaves in Russia, and this generation of Muscovites follows American fashions, eats at American restaurants, aspires to drive American cars, drink American sodas, and smoke American cigarettes, despite all that, the Russian public remains, at best, ambivalent about their country’s relationship with the last remaining superpower. Polls show that while 68 percent of Russians view America as a benevolent country, 30 percent believe that Moscow should reassert its great power status, and confront the U.S.A. wherever possible.

SPOKESMAN: The president of the United States, and the president of the Russian Federation.

SIMON MARKS: President Bush maintains the two countries are about to open a new chapter in their post-Cold War ties, a chapter that opens with the nuclear agreement the two presidents will sign Friday, setting the stage for cuts of up to two-thirds in their arsenals of deployed strategic nuclear warheads over the next ten years.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: This treaty will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War. When I sign the treaty with President Putin in Russia, we will begin the new era of U.S.-Russian relationships, and that’s important. The new era will be a period of enhanced mutual security, economic security, and improved relations.

SIMON MARKS: The U.S. and Russia have also found a new accommodation over the eastward expansion of NATO. A new, NATO-Russia council will give Moscow a greater level of involvement in the decision-making processes of its former military nemesis, an agreement that codifies the expansion of the alliance to include many of Russia’s former satellites in eastern Europe. But in Moscow, there is by no means unanimous agreement that the latest achievements are historic, or that a new chapter is about to begin.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Both countries are within the old pattern of relationship. Both countries still are thinking about security treaties, about irritants, and still are within the pattern of the Cold War. Very strangely, ironically, the summit, which intends to put the Cold War beyond, is the reflection, the symbol of the Cold War relations.

SIMON MARKS: At the Russian parliament, the Duma, where President Putin now controls a coalition that is expected to back the new nuclear treaty with Washington, you can nevertheless hear a similar viewpoint. And you can hear it from a new generation of young reformers, like Alexei Arbatov. The deputy chairman of the Duma’s defense committee, he says the nuclear deal is better than no deal at all, but he still worries about the dynamic of today’s U.S.-Russia relationship.

ALEXEI ARBATOV, Member, Russian Duma: It’s not a relationship between equals. Certainly, Americans are dominating, and Russians feel that they are not getting enough in response to what Russia has been doing since September 11.

SIMON MARKS: What Vladimir Putin has been doing since September 11 is securing US support by hitching his wagon to President Bush. The Russians say they warned of the risks of global terror even before the attacks on New York and Washington. Where President Bush speaks of an “axis of evil”, the Russian leader now talks of an “arc of instability.” He’s provided an unprecedented degree of intelligence to the US, as well as significant advice on the dangers of fighting a military campaign in Afghanistan.

ALEXEI ARBATOV: In a sense, it may be a new chapter, but it’s not a chapter which is liked or supported by the vast majority of Russian public opinion, mass media, parliament, political and strategic community. This kind of chapter of which President Putin’s policy is one part, and American policy is another part, is supported only by a minority of Russian political and military elite.

SIMON MARKS: The ambivalence of the Russian public to developments is mirrored by the ambiguous approach of their leader. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin has emerged as a modernizer, the kind of leader willing to make deals with Washington in order to secure acceptance from the western family of developed nations.

But on the other hand, he stands accused by his opponents by presiding over an authoritarian crackdown here that has weakened, not strengthened, Russian democracy.

In the breakaway region of Chechnya, for example, the Russian army has continued its brutal military campaign, often, say campaigners, with a blatant disregard for human rights. The president says he’s fighting a war against terror in the North Caucasus. He blames Chechen militants for the recent bombing of a military parade in the region of Dagestan that killed 43 and wounded dozens of children, an event cited as evidence of the threat Russia faces.

But he’s also curtailed many of Russia’s open-society reforms. A whole generation of pioneering young journalists who were reaching a national audience just a few months ago, are now silenced after a government offensive against the free media. Independent labor unions, political parties, human rights organizations, and academics, also say they’re being harassed by a government intent on old-style control, a development in which some lawmakers here say the U.S. is now complicit.

ALEXEI ARBATOV: President Putin certainly wanted the West to remove its sharp criticism of Russian operation in Chechnya. So, Putin most probably counted on that. But he certainly didn’t think that the West would approve of his domestic policy, which led to curtailment of many democratic principles and freedoms, including the freedom of mass media. I think that American priorities are conducive to Putin being very forthcoming and ready to make concessions on foreign policy, while preserving the policy of so-called “managed democracy,” which actually means curtailment of democracy.

SIMON MARKS: Vladimir Putin still enjoys tremendous approval here – over 65 percent in every opinion poll published. But with two years to go before he faces reelection, criticism of his domestic and now foreign policies is starting to grow.

Analyst Lilia Shevtsova says the president finds himself caught between two worlds, between the modernizers who seek an expansion of democracy, and the hard-liners who crave Russia’s former place at the superpower table.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA: Putin is making probably constructive job in dismantling the superpower status of Russia, but he is not doing it in a smart way, because he’s not explaining things to Russia. He should simply tell Russians what he intends to do in foreign policy arena, why Russia is behaving as a minor partner to the United States; what are the deliverables, what Russia is getting out of its integration into the West. So far, his response was very muted to these issues, and without national consensus, I don’t think that the partnership between Russia and the United States will be fruitful.

SIMON MARKS: Playing in Moscow next week, after the Bush-Putin summit ends, “Spiderman.” And shortly thereafter, James Brown and even Ozzy Osbourne will be paying their respects to the city. All those shows are expected to be sold out. But that doesn’t imply that many Muscovites are losing their faith in Russia’s great power status, or their concerns that their country is increasingly dancing to an American tune.