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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Speaks of U.S. Humility to Opposition

U.S. President Barack Obama told opposition and civic society representatives Tuesday that Americans and Russians must learn from each other and that it was important for him to show humility.

“I think in the past there’s been a tendency for the United States to lecture rather than to listen,” Obama said during a round-table discussion with eight handpicked opposition politicians that lasted almost 90 minutes in the Ritz Carlton hotel.

“[To] not simply tolerate dissenting voices but also to respect and recognize [them]” helped solidify the U.S. government “during some very difficult times,” he said, according to a transcript published on the White House’s web site.

Boris Nemtsov, co-head of the Solidarity movement, told Obama that “resetting” the opposition’s relations with the Kremlin was complicated.

“For America’s leadership, free speech and democracy are basic values, but for ours it is censorship and the total monopoly of power,” Nemtsov told Interfax after the meeting.

Ilya Ponomaryov, a State Duma deputy for the Just Russia party, said Obama reinforced his opinion that he was a socialist-leaning president.

“A lot of what he said was very people-orientated, and it was clear that he receives a lot of his ideas from grassroots. I and many of my comrades share his ideas,” he told The Moscow Times.

Ponomaryov, a former Communitst youth activist who last year switched to the pro-Kremlin socialist A Just Russia, added that he used the meeting to criticize traditional U.S. policy toward the country’s opposition. “They limited themselves to right-wing liberals who compromised the concept of democracy and freedom,” he said.

Other round-table participants were Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin, former Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov and Leonid Gozman, leaders of Right Cause, another Kremlin-sponsored opposition party.

Earlier Tuesday, Obama made a brief appearance at a civic forum organized by the New Eurasia Foundation, a U.S.-sponsored think tank, where he seemed to praise the Kremlin’s recent move to soften the country’s NGO law. “I welcome the steps that President [Dmitry] Medvedev has taken so that civil society groups can play a more active role on behalf of the Russian people,” Obama said, according to an official White House transcript.

Oleg Orlov, head of the human rights organization Memorial, said Obama had rightly praised civil society’s overall role, but his assessment of the situation in Russia was a little unrealistic. “This was a bit optimistic and looking through rose-colored glasses,” he said.

Nicolai Petro, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, said that while Obama’s talk of humility was refreshing, his real challenge lay in shaping the details of the coming U.S. policy toward Moscow. “I fear that his rhetoric will suffer from the wiles of his advisers,” Petro said by telephone from Kingston, Rhode Island.

He said the declared goal of the Obama administration to make the mutual relationship productive “inevitably puts human rights and democracy on the sidelines.”