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Russian Activists Concerned Obama May Pursue Pragmatic Policies


Although President Obama has yet to detail his Russia policy, the Kremlin says it is receiving positive signals from his administration about the prospects for resetting the relationship between Moscow and Washington. But Russian civic activists are concerned Mr. Obama may pursue pragmatic policies that could advance bilateral interests, but not the principles of democracy in their country. Our Moscow correspondent takes a closer look at some of the issues involved in President Obama's upcoming visit to Russia.

In May, President Obama told visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the United States and Russia have an excellent opportunity to reset the bilateral relationship on many issues.

"…from nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation; the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan; how we approach Iran; how we approach the Middle East; commercial ties between the two countries; and, how we address the financial crisis that has put such a strain on the economies of all countries around the world," Mr. Obama said.

Foreign Minister Lavrov responded favorably.

"I think we work in a very pragmatic, businesslike way, on the basis of common interests whenever our positions coincide; and, on the basis of respect to each other whenever we have disagreements, trying to narrow those disagreements for the benefit of our countries and international stability," Lavrov said.

One major common interest is reducing nuclear arsenals. The U.S. and Russian presidents are to receive a progress report on a new agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Progress on START could lead to closer cooperation on other issues -- says Viktor Kremenyuk, of Moscow's USA-Canada Institute.

Kremenyuk says he thinks Mr. Obama is doing the right thing in making offensive strategic weapons and a new START treaty his priority. The analyst says, if this issue can be resolved, it can open the possibility of addressing other problems -- problems such as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons -- a top U.S. foreign policy priority. Also up for grabs is the proposed missile-defense system, which Moscow strongly opposed when the Bush Administration proposed deployment in Central Europe.

Police in Russia often use force to break up opposition demonstrations, raising the question of how the Kremlin deals with dissent and human rights. Russian civic activists say the issue should be at the top of Mr. Obama's agenda, but fear it will not.

In March, President Medvedev met in the Kremlin with former U.S. Senators Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart -- members of the bipartisan Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia. Although the commission urges Mr. Obama to raise human rights, it also recommends he respect Russia's sovereignty, history and traditions.

Igor Klyamkin, of the Liberal Mission Foundation in Moscow, told VOA the commission may be parroting the rhetoric of Kremlin officials, without regard for the hidden meaning of their words.

Klyamkin says what they mean is that democracy and rule of law are alien to Russia; that its values and traditions are autocratic and authoritarian rule. The activist says, by using the same words [as the Kremlin], Americans indicate agreement with that kind of Russia.

Viktor Kremenyuk agrees his country must democratize, if it is to modernize its economy. But he says outside pressure could be counterproductive.

Kremenyuk says the idea of democratization has not had much of a response in Russia; it has not gotten through to ordinary people or to those in power. He adds that to demand observance of certain rules under such conditions will look like fundamental interference in the internal affairs of Russia.

A report by the U.S. Russia Commission says Moscow's war with Georgia and its pressure on Ukraine have been troubling, but cautions against making the region a political battlefield that could have dangerous unintended consequences. Igor Klyamkin says an authoritarian Russia has an interest in an unstable Ukraine, to demonstrate that democracy does not work.

Klyamkin says that approach encourages preservation of an authoritarian regime in Russia, which does not correspond with the country's national interests.

During the American presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama said the United States should not shy away from pushing for more democracy and transparency in Russia. How hard he pushes as president should become clear when he visits the country, next month.


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