Chilly welcome awaits Obama in Russia

MOSCOW Mon Jul 6, 2009 2:53am EDT

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev has promised U.S. President Barack Obama "the warmest time" when he visits Moscow this week but cold grey skies, a low-key welcome and a skeptical public are more likely.

In contrast to the "Obamamania" which has greeted the U.S. leader on other foreign tours, Russia has played down the visit, reflecting the prickly nature of relations between the two Cold War superpowers and Kremlin unease at Obama's popularity.

The unseasonably chilly, damp streets of central Moscow carried no flags, posters or banners announcing the visit or greeting Obama on Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours before the U.S. leader was due to arrive.

Street adverts posted by the Moscow town hall instead promoted a July 8 festival of "family, love and fidelity" and an opinion poll before the visit showed that only eight percent of Russians thought relations with the U.S. were friendly.

State-controlled television -- the main source of news for most Russians -- has barely mentioned Obama's visit, aside from screening a Obama interview where the U.S. leader said he would treat Russia as an equal and respect its leaders.

The mood contrasts with what Medvedev promised after meeting Obama for the first time in London in April.

"July is the warmest time in Russia and in Moscow and I believe that will be exactly the feature of the talks and relations we are going to enjoy during that period in Moscow," the Russian leader said.

INDIFFERENCE

Obama's two keynote foreign policy speeches -- preaching freedom and nuclear disarmament in Prague in April and pledging respect for the Muslim world in Cairo in June -- have been barely reported on Russian state television.

"The last thing that they want...is Obamamania in this country," said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center think-tank in an interview.

"An American president is by definition a political challenge. If he is more popular than your own president, or if he even notionally represents an alternative to your style of leadership, this is something you don't want to have."

The Kremlin denies playing down the visit but diplomats say Russia's governing duo of Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are especially sensitive because of the severity of the economic crisis gripping Russia, which has undermined the Kremlin's claim to have delivered prosperity.

Russia's state-controlled media have criticized the United States over the past year for pursuing an anti-missile system in Europe, for favoring NATO expansion and for supporting Georgia in its brief war with Russia last year.

This campaign -- which last year included a demonstration outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow featuring a film comparing George W. Bush to the Nazis -- has left its mark.

A poll published last week by the independent Levada Center showed that 44 percent of Russians regarded relations with the United States as "cold" or "tense" and only 28 percent said they believed Obama would improve them substantially.

Reflecting a long history of Cold War mistrust, the poll also showed that Russians were unenthusiastic about what is supposed to be one of the main fruits of Obama's visit -- a framework agreement to cut arsenals of nuclear weapons.

Fifty-six percent of respondents said Russia should not agree to cuts in nuclear arms, while 25 percent said it should. The remainder had no opinion.

"On the eve of Barack Obama's arrival in Moscow, many Russians are showing a surprising degree of indifference to the trip, while others say they didn't even know the American president was coming," the state-run Russia Today TV channel wrote in a report posted on its website.

But Trenin said public ignorance about Obama's visit reflected a deliberate Kremlin policy of playing down the trip.

"By watching Russian TV you wouldn't know Obama was coming to town. This is deliberate," he said.

"This is being played as essentially a low-key visit that shows the American leadership's respect for the Russian leadership. This is not some star coming to town."

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