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Obama Greeted With Skepticism Rather Than Cheers in Russia

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009 5:22 PM

MOSCOW, July 7 -- If much of the world is gripped by Obamamania, Russia is decidedly not.

President Obama is frequently greeted by cheering crowds and excited media on his trips abroad, but layers of suspicion that accumulated over the years awaited him here in Russia.

"Who is Mr. Obama? Where did he come from?" asked Nikita Ivanov, 21, a law student. "How did he get to power? He says he will make a change, but already he is showing very aggressive policies in Afghanistan."

As the presidents motorcade made its way from the airport Monday, curious onlookers appeared intermittently along the route. A few flashed peace signs, but most watched in silence. The scenes were similar as the presidential convoy made its way through the city, shuttling Obama from his luxury hotel near Red Square to meetings.

Emerging from a subway station near the Kremlin hours before Obama was to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Pantykhin, a 53-year-old who works in real estate, seemed unimpressed. "Maybe he will bring something new," he said between drags on a cigarette. "Better or worse than [President George W.] Bush, we can't say. He is just a different man."

That type of skepticism is apparently common in Russia, where public opinion polls have found that both Obama and the United States are deeply distrusted.

A poll released this week by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a research consortium, found that only 15 percent of Russians surveyed view the United States as playing a positive role in the world, while just 23 percent believe that Obama will do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. Only 12 percent said the United States treats Russia fairly, while three in four said the United States abuses its power to bend Russia to its will.

In a survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, more than one in three Russians expressed indifference to Obama, while just one in five said they were hopeful about his leadership.

For Obama, those attitudes create another hurdle as he attempts to shed old suspicions and "reset" relations with Russia to emphasize the two countries mutual interests.

That effort is already fraught as Russia and the United States, while agreeing on some issues, have sharply disagreed on others, including U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe and Russia's stance toward Ukraine and Georgia.

Obama said he has been trying to alter the tone of U.S. foreign policy to make it easier for countries to focus on their common interests with the United States. But that task is much easier, he said, when the United States is viewed favorably.

"The world leaders are like politicians everywhere, and they're reading the polls," Obama said in an interview Wednesday with ABC News' Jake Tapper. "They find out that their population, 45 percent of or 30 percent approve of America and 70 percent disapprove, that is a strong disincentive to want to work with us."

Such attitudes are remnants of the Cold War, analysts say. Anna Kachkayeva, who monitors media coverage for Radio Liberty in Moscow, called them a response to skewed images of the United States that she said are common in Russian media.

"The media formed a hostile image of the United States as a nuclear superpower that wanted to be the leader in the world, and another strong power like the Soviet Union was not in its interests," she said. "This image is very deep in people's minds, and it is very easy to maintain it within Russian people -- you can see it in all kinds of political talk shows on federal channels and in news pieces."

Others say the elements of Obama's political rise that inspire people in many corners of the world -- the fact that he is the first black U.S. president, and what that says about evolving attitudes in the United States -- are less powerful in Russia.

Not only is there a stubborn undercurrent of racial and ethnic animus here, analysts say, but there is also deep cynicism about democracy.

"Intolerance is still part of Russia's political culture," said Boris Makarenko, chairman of the board of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank. "It expands from black people to the Roma, to people from Central Asia. There is no notion of political correctness in this society."

Even some here who find Obama's tone refreshing wonder whether he will follow through with action.

"The president of such a big country stands for the interests of his country," said Elena Golovko, 47, an education project manager. "You should judge a president by his deeds. With Obama, everybody is waiting."

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