Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

November 11, 2001
In Russia, Skepticism
Some question Putin's backing of war on terror

By Liam Pleven

Moscow - Gray-uniformed police had blocked off the route into Red Square, but the Communists who still have a political presence in Russia paraded along the street in front of the nearby parliament the other day, led by a marcher carrying a picture of Josef Stalin.

Written on a placard attached to one trailing vehicle was a lament that injected nostalgia for Soviet superpower into present-day politics: "No to Putin's intention to surrender the country to NATO," it said, referring to President Vladimir Putin.

Tatyana Davydova was not chanting any slogans, but as the marchers walked by on a recent holiday, she shared her own suspicions of America and its allies. "My attitude is very negative toward what America is doing - bombing countries and saying it's a fight against terrorism," said the 72-year-old Muscovite. "Our politicians look very weak."

President George W. Bush has repeatedly said how much he appreciates the fact that the first phone call he received from a foreign leader on Sept. 11 came from Putin, and Russia's support of the American-led campaign in Afghanistan has helped the United States, both logistically and politically.

Russia has backed the bombing and helped pave the way for U.S. troops to use military bases in nations like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that are historically within Russia's sphere of influence. And further results of the relationship may mark the three-day summit beginning Tuesday between Putin and Bush.

But Davydova's comments - even more than the rally - indicate that Putin is at odds with some citizens in the new embrace of the United States, and that support for the American effort is not universal here, a fact that could grow more significant if the conflict is prolonged.

With each recent step that has indicated Russian backing for America's campaign or Russia's willingness to strip away the remaining vestiges of a Cold War stance - such as closing its remaining military base in Cuba - Russian commentators have wondered what their country is getting in return.

In a front-page article headlined "Putin Out In Front," for instance, the moderate weekly newspaper Vek recently said, "The President will have to demonstrate to both public opinion and the elites within the very short term some concrete results brought by the policy of drawing closer to the West - investments, restructuring of debt, a new system of international security where the voice of Russia carries weight, assistance in catching blood-soaked Arab mercenaries fighting in Chechnya, etc."

In the face of such questioning, Putin told U.S. reporters in Moscow yesterday that he was "very optimistic" Russia could reach a compromise with Washington on U.S. plans to build a shield against "rogue" rockets, according to the Interfax news agency. He also said he knew Bush's mind on the related need for cuts in both sides' nuclear arsenals, saying that on this issue, too, the "compromise is going in the right direction."

The weight of Russians' expectations could be a presence at the coming summit. Last week, former U.S. Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) held a news conference in Moscow with the East-West Institute, a think tank, and said that while he couldn't speak for the Bush administration, he anticipated advances on restructuring old Soviet-era debt and Russian membership in the World Trade Organization.

Boren also acknowledged that Putin was ahead of public opinion in some ways, but told Russian reporters, "That's what real leaders do. ... They don't wait and see which way the parade is going and then get out in front of it."

In fact, 69 percent of the respondents to a poll conducted in Russia last month said they had a positive attitude toward closer ties with the United States. But only 41 percent said they had seen any signs of change so far - largely indistinguishable from 44 percent, who said they had already seen such signs.

Similarly, many Russians take a dim view of the Taliban and Islamic extremism, and many want the United States to destroy terrorist networks like Osama bin Laden's that Russia believes have helped rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

"My only concern is that this campaign should be carried out to the end," said Sergei Shpagin, 47, who was attending a different rally on the same day - a holiday of national reconciliation - as the Communist march. "An average Russian person supports the destruction of the Taliban."

Shpagin was wearing the uniform of the tsar's military as he spoke, with a group of similarly dressed men. Shpagin said he doesn't support the United States when it conducts campaigns like the bombing more than two years ago against Yugoslavia - like Russia, a nation made up largely of Slavs. And he acknowledged that the Russian government has gone further in its support for the United States than some Russians would have.

"But," he said, "it's a well-known fact that 5 percent of the people, whether in England or America or Russia, make history."

Back to the Top    Next Article