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CIS: Obama appeals to sceptical Russians

By Douglas Birch and Karina Ioffee
Sat Jul 4 05:09:08 EST 2009

MOSCOW, July 3 AP - Barack Obama dolls have hit Moscow shelves and a bar is handing out half-price cocktails to anyone who says the magic words "Yes we can" in anticipation of the American president's arrival in Moscow on Monday, July 6, for a summit.

"Obama has a wonderful smile, a face showing his self-confidence and clarity of mind," says Tatyana Verkhova, who has reproduced Obama's megawatt grin on a growing army of wooden Matryoshka nesting dolls.

But while Obama's star power is generating buzz here, the enthusiasm doesn't extend to Russian feelings about how he's doing as president: In fact, a series of recent polls here show that most Russians are skeptical of the new US leader and remain wary of his country.

A June poll conducted by Russia's authoritative Levada Centre found only 28 per cent of Russians thought that relations with the US had improved under Obama, while 61 per cent said they had remained the same or worsened.

"It remains to be seen about Obama ... too early to tell," said a dubious Feyodor Guzan, a retiree, as he stood outside a Moscow McDonald's restaurant. "The president is important, but it's also the people that surround him that make a difference."

Skepticism is particularly acute in predominantly Muslim regions of Russia like Dagestan, where US military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been deeply unpopular.

"I like the culture and the people, but the government is stupid," said Kamil Musayev, a 21-year-old in Dagestan. "They just send their soldiers to kill and they do what they're told."

The Levada poll's findings were buttressed by a survey by the US WorldPublicOpinion.org, which found just 23 per cent of Russians were confident Obama would "do the right thing", while 55 per cent said they were not confident he would do so.

To broaden his slim Russian support base, Obama plans to spend most of his two-day visit trying to talk directly to the Russian public, including business leaders, civic activists and the country's tiny liberal democratic opposition.

He is expected in particular to reach out to young Russians, who are generally more supportive.

"America is an awesome country," said Daniil Kim, 13, who plans to attend a US youth camp in autumn. "It has cheaper brands, it's the land of rap and Barack Obama. I even have an Obama T-shirt."

Attitudes toward the United States have chilled in recent years amid growing political tensions and state media coverage and commentary that depicted the US as a hostile power. Government officials have also repeatedly blamed the US for the global economic crisis.

While much of the public remains wary of Obama, government media have softened their criticism of the White House in recent months.

Lilia Shevtsova, a liberal commentator and chair of the Carnegie Moscow Centre's Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions program, said recent surveys do not reflect what she sees: strong grassroots support for Obama.

"I would say this is the only American president who has met with such interest, hope and anticipation in Russia," she said.

She conceded, though, that Obama's support here has come "despite the fact that we have every day, every week, anti-American propaganda" in Russia's state media.