Eagerly Waiting for Change — Within Russia

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The election of the 44th U.S. president elicited an unusually large amount of interest from the Russian people from the very beginning of the campaign two years ago.

These were, after all, extraordinary elections. For the first time in U.S. history, either a woman or an African American stood a real chance of becoming president. Election day television coverage showed lines of voters stretching for whole city blocks as people waited to cast their ballots. These scenes were repeated over and over across the United States.

Still, in Russia, there seemed to be an excessive number of television reports, newspaper and magazine articles, and passionate discussions on Internet forums and blogs -- all concerning whether presidential candidate Barack Obama or John McCain would be better for Russia.

Over the past six months, I have spent more time in Kiev than in Moscow and can therefore compare the two. Suppose that the many Ukrainians who advocate membership in NATO and the European Union were also to ask the na've question: Would Obama or McCain help us to integrate into Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community more quickly? However, the frenzy over this election that was evident in Moscow was entirely absent from Kiev. Why? Because, in my opinion, the Russian political elite are suffering from a deep, albeit unconscious identity crisis.

A self-confident country that is truly getting up off its knees, developing economically and politically, does not have the need or the time to worry about which candidate would be better as U.S. president. Other things would be more important.

A major portion of the Russian political elite -- like a great many ordinary citizens -- cannot seem to shake off their superpower ambitions. It is possible that this condition in untreatable, that these people grew up in a different time and are unable to understand how the world -- and Russia's role in that world -- have changed.

Some members of the elite, even if they do not fully realize it yet, are at least beginning to have a vague understanding that Russia is no longer a superpower and is unlikely to ever become one again. This is not only due to Russia's low economic output and standard of living, but because the country is not developing. Real development is qualitative growth, the building of continually more complex economic, political and societal mechanisms, procedures and institutions. But in Vladimir Putin's Russia of today, all of these things are developing in the opposite direction -- the power vertical, the compliant parliament, the obedient court system, the oil and gas economy that is heavily dependent on the Kremlin -- and society does not seem to care.

There is some euphoria among the elite over Obama's victory, which I think stems from deep-seated insecurities as well as from a fundamental lack of understanding of how the U.S. political system is built. Recall how Soviet-era pseudo experts on the United States loved to claim that Republicans were pragmatists and Democrats were die-hard idealists who leaned toward the defense of human rights, and that it was therefore easier for the Soviet Union to reach agreements with Republicans. But that all ended with Republican President Ronald Reagan putting the Soviet Union in checkmate.

What exactly is Russia's elite expecting from President-elect Obama? They would probably all say that Russia's relationship with the United States will be better under Obama. But what does "better" mean? That the United States will begin treating Russia as an equal? That it will stop criticizing Russian authorities for human rights violations and transgressing other democratic norms and principles? That Washington will recognize Ukraine and Georgia as lying within Russia's "zone of interests"? Unfortunately, it is unlikely Obama will be more accommodating on those issues than McCain would have been.

People say Obama is a liberal, although many Russian politicians equate "liberal" with "weakling." However, considering that Obama managed to triumph over Hillary Clinton and John McCain -- both of whom have much more experience than him -- could mean that President Obama might not be a pushover. Add to that the fact that Joe Biden is his vice president and that his foreign policy team includes the senior and junior Brzezinskis, Richard Holbrooke and Michael McFaul.

Incidentally, who says the relationship between Russia and the United States is really so bad? Wasn't President Dmitry Medvedev invited to Washington for a 20-nation summit to discuss ways to resolve the global financial crisis? Medvedev could have been snubbed, after all. Spain, for example, was not invited, even though it has the world's eighth-largest economy.

The Russian elite, who are accustomed to thinking of Russia as being on a par with the United States, frequently fail to realize that Washington does not consider the relationship with Moscow to be a top priority. In fact, the question of the United States' relationship with Russia came up only once during the election campaign, and that was in connection with the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. Both Obama and McCain came out forcefully against Russia's actions. There should be no more illusions in this regard: However bad Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili might be and nobody in the United States or the West is prepared to accept Russia's attempts to present Russia's wide-scale war against sovereign Georgia as "a peacekeeping operation."

And really, how could relations with the United States be any better than they initially were with George W. Bush, especially after Bush looked into Putin's eyes and gave him carte blanche? How did Putin thank Bush for that? He stirred up fears of a foreign threat and made anti-U.S. rhetoric a plank of foreign policy -- all in order to retain power and mobilize the Russian electorate.

By the way, it appears that Russia's elite does not fully realize that with Obama as president, the widespread anti-U.S. feelings will subside and sympathy toward the United States will increase. That will spell an end to Russia's attempts to hammer together an alliance among anti-U.S. countries and to exploit differences between the United States and Europe.

The relationship between Russia and the United States will improve, but not when an unusually pro-Russian president takes office -- something that will probably never happen because politicians there are only pro-U.S. It will happen when there is a new political elite in Russia, an elite composed of people capable of taking a sober look at the country's place in the world, defining Russia's true national interests, and respecting the democratic values that are embraced the world over.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.