Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow
MOSCOW -- for the past two days the city's downtown language was English. If you were grabbing a coffee or dining with friends, local waiters rarely bothered to switch to Russian, even with Russians. Obama brought an unprecedented 600 advisors, media, and assistants with him. Even as the American President had breakfast with the Russian Prime-Minister at Putin's house in the countryside, literally hundreds of white vans and black SUVs with American embassy license plates and "for hire" signs were lining up Tverskaya Street near the Ritz Carlton that hosted the Obamas. Private businesses and non-profits also chose the occasion of Obama's visit to host their personal meetings.
Now, one has to ask: What are the results of this American invasion of Moscow? Reduction of nukes? Meeting of Obama with Garry Kasparov, the virtual leader of a virtual opposition? Endless argument about the non-existent American missile defense system in Eastern Europe? If these dialogues constitute the promised "reset," then maybe the only real reset that occurred was the exchange of George and Laura for Barack and Michelle walking the plush carpets of the Moscow Ritz Carlton. Such a "reset" isn't worth all the American taxpayers' money spent on such an over-the-top, opulent trip.
But was there a possibility that the behind-the-scenes results were brighter? What did Obama really talk about with Putin during the two hour private breakfast? Maybe about none of the above, but about our countries' economic relations, about the state of human rights in Russia and, maybe, the new Administration's perceptions about the international situation--that is, about Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, and North Korea.
Nukes and Iran: Reducing the nuclear stockpiles in Russia and the U.S. is important, however, it's not vital. Russia and America would be the very last countries to use these weapons against each other. If we survived the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, we certainly can live through the current "misunderstandings." No, the nuclear issue is real, but the focus should not be on the U.S. and Russia but on Iran, first, and, then, North Korea.
One must hope especially that Obama spent a good amount of time talking to Medvedev about Iran, formerly Persia, a country where Russians have had an intelligence presence for well over 400 years.
Then there is Afghanistan. Collaboration seems to be more open now. Chalk that up as a possible improvement. The Russian government recently allowed Americans to ship weapons and troops to Afghanistan through Russian railroads and airspace. Afghanistan, just like Paris, never changes, does it? In 2001, Russians shared their intelligence with Americans on this troublesome region. Maybe, Russian generals even had a few more maps and names--left over from the 80s--that they could hand to members of Obama's legion of traveling advisors.
Kasparov and Liberals: Obama's meeting with Kasparov is a questionable approach to the promised "reset." It really doesn't do anything for human rights. Most likely, what we saw was the American president's appeal to his domestic audience: media back home. Kasparov apparently has a credulous constituency on the editorial boards of major U.S. dailies, but he has never ran for an office in Russia, and the opposition parties that he is meant to represent failed to gain even one percent of the votes in the last Russian parliamentary elections. Furthermore, Kasparov has been willing to align himself with Russian communists, nationalists, and anarchists in a truly vain attempt to forge an opposition coalition. How many Americans are aware of this? Unless President Obama wanted to learn more from Mr. Kasparov's allies about nationalization of the private sector or patterns of behavior in flooded New Orleans, the Obama meeting with him amounted to little more than a PR ploy. The real target was the U.S. major media. But, in Russia it was just a sad commentary on Obama's judgment.
Human Rights: Russia may not be as liberal as the U.S. or much of Europe. But Russians in Russia view their home country as the freest it has been in centuries. Neither Putin nor Medvedev have planned so far to kill populations of the entire cities like Ivan the Terrible, build European capitals on the corpses of starved workers, as did Peter the Great, shoot peaceful demonstrators like Nicholas the Second, execute millions like Stalin, or even fire at the nationally elected leaders like Yeltsin. The objective reality is best clarified when put into historical context.
Perhaps, therefore, American diplomats and pundits really should care more about the state of democracy in China or Saudi Arabia, rather than pronouncing so ardently on Russia. On the other hand, maybe, Russia really is not living up to its potential and should indeed step up the fostering of freedom of speech and the diversity of the nation's leadership. Either way, one must be blind to accept Obama's estimation that "Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business," while Medvedev is a brand new breed of a leader.
Meanwhile, we have no clue about how much was said behind-the-scenes about human rights at this meeting. It's a mystery on both sides.
Business: As always, U.S.-Russian economic relations are at the front of the perpetually cold relationship. McDonalds made a strategic and positive investment choice in the late 80s, and today Russia is McDonalds' best performing market in the world. However, burgers and Coke aren't sufficient to build a foundation of economic substance for Russian/American friendship. There is, for example, the unresolved matter of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment that continues in existence and complicates trade, even though the presenting issue of the time--Soviet persecution of Russian Jews--is surely an historic postscript today. It is not widely known in the U.S., but Jewish immigration to Russia these days, as well as from Russia, is both free and substantial and Jews have a large and successful role in today's economy.
"Total trade between our two countries is just 36 billion dollars," Obama said in a speech to the forum at the New Economic School, standing alongside Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. "America's trade with Russia is only one percent of all our trade in the world. A percentage virtually unchanged since the Cold War..." Obama said his aim of resetting relations between Russia and the United States has to be more than "just security or dismantling weapons. We need to make it easier for American companies to invest in Russia and make it easier for Russian companies to invest in the U.S."
Dmitry Medvedev, for his part, agreed that it is necessary to promote a "positive mood" among business leaders from the two countries. Who would argue with such sentiments? However, the two presidents' generic suggestions were best summed up by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire and head of the Renova group. He said that while there were some positive examples of improved Russian-American business relations, cooperation has not yet become systematic.
"We are going around in circles all the time. Every time, U.S. business has to discover Russia for itself anew and vice versa," said Vekselberg. Bilateral trade turnover is "despicably low, while [the amount of] mutual investment is simply shameful," Vekselberg declared.
Follow the money, as they say. And, if you do, you'll see that as the vans and SUVs are parked back in their garages, and Obama and his small "army" are airborne from Moscow, Russian and American entrepreneurs and common people are back on their own in the quest to produce the long-needed reset in the U.S.-Russian relations.
Photos of the Obama's visit to Moscow:
Obama arriving to the Ritz Carlton in Moscow
Presidents shaking hands
Obama and Medvedev posing near Tsar Pushka in Kremlin
Garry Kasparov enroute
Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin
Obamas laying flowers to the Unknown Soldier in Moscow
Obamas arriving to the Moscow's New Economic School for the president's speech