MOSCOW (Reuters) - Barack Obama attempted to bridge the divisions of the Cold War with a new generation of Russian students on Tuesday, outlining a vision of a world made safer by closer ties between the Kremlin and Washington.
The U.S. president told students from Moscow’s New Economic School the future of Russia — and its relations with the United States — belonged to them.
“What kind of future is Russia going to have? What kind of future are Russia and America going to have together? What world order will replace the Cold War?” Obama said.
“Those questions still do not have clear answers, and so now they must be answered by you — by your generation in Russia, America, and around the world. You get to decide.”
But a generation of apathetic young people who were born in the last days of the Soviet Union and who grew up in the chaos of the 1990s may care more about money than better relations with Washington.
The students of the school sat quietly and applauded only at the end of the 31-minute speech, which was delivered late because Obama’s meeting with Russia’s powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, went over time.
During other keynote speeches in Prague in April and Cairo in June, Obama was repeatedly applauded. His speech in Moscow was not carried live on the main Russian television channels, showing only on a cable news channel not seen by most.
“We are maybe the one country in the world where there is no Obamamania,” Sergei Markov, a parliamentary deputy from the ruling United Russia party which Putin heads, told Reuters.
“For us he is not president of the world but the president of the United States of America.”
While extending the hand of friendship on cutting nuclear weapons and dealing jointly with North Korea and Iran, Obama also addressed the hangovers from the Soviet Union by warning empires should not treat other countries as chess pieces.
“In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries,” Obama said. “The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over.”
A gentle way to ease Russia out of its post-imperial stupor, perhaps, but Obama’s comments go against the feelings of many in the Russian elite, who pine for the days when the Kremlin was at the very top table of world politics.
Many Russian officials see the United States as an empire that has sought to check Russian interests since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Obama or no Obama, they say, the U.S. empire will remain.
Russians have heard the promises of democracy and friendship from visiting U.S. leaders for decades, while Russian officials say NATO has expanded eastwards.
“It was a very positive speech,” said Natalya Ignatyeva, a student. “I want to see how it works out in better relations.”
Obama said Georgia and Ukraine should have the right to secure borders and sovereignty and that NATO did not want a confrontation with Russia.
The U.S. leader also addressed the rampant corruption that is widespread in every walk of Russian life, from multi-billion energy deals to everyday bribes to teachers and policemen.
Obama was careful to sprinkle his charm carefully through the speech, quoting Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and honoring the Soviet Union’s enormous sacrifices in the Second World War.
“Russia has cut its way through time like a mighty river through a canyon, leaving an indelible mark on human history as it goes,” Obama said. “As you move this story forward, look to the future that can be built if we refuse to be burdened by the old obstacles and old suspicions.”
Additional reporting Oleg Shchedrov and Conor Humphries; Editing by Sophie Hares