Russians yearn for respect while doubting Bush

`We deserve better,' woman on street says

May 26, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Larisa Babushina speaks fast when she is angry. So when the subject turned to President Bush on her park bench in Pushkin Square yesterday, it was a challenge keeping up with her.

"He mainly admires himself; he doesn't want to help us," said Babushina, a 67-year-old retired engineer. "Bush, he speaks flattering, but his next step, he makes a decision that's bad for Russia. The U.S. should treat Russia better than they treat us now. We deserve better."

Bush did not leave the best impression on her during his two days in the capital. He left yesterday for St. Petersburg, where he and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin were to complete a summit today that both have lauded as a milestone.

Babushina's views, which are shared by many Russians, represent a significant challenge as the pair work to build ties and trust between two nations with very different pasts and a history of disliking each other.

Bush appeared to receive a warm welcome in Moscow late Thursday after enduring vociferous anti-American protests in Germany. He suggested during his visit that Russians are growing more open to a close alliance with the United States.

"Most Russians want and expect what most Americans want and expect," Bush told community and religious leaders Friday. In the United States, "We are bound together by common values. And so can Russia be bound by the same values."

Tepid support for America and its values seems to exist here. In a poll taken by the VTSiOM public opinion center and reported in the Moscow Times, 59 percent of respondents said they had good or very good feelings toward the United States, while 34 percent said they felt negatively. Nearly 45 percent said they did not like President Bush.

A broad range of sentiments, mostly anti-American, was expressed yesterday in interviews with nearly a dozen Muscovites, randomly approached around Pushkin Square, about a mile from the Kremlin. In general, these Russians felt blase about the summit, saying they are convinced the lives of average Russians will not change much.

Disdain for Bush and the United States among these Russians was strong, but perhaps more nuanced than in Europe. After a brief period of post-Sept. 11 sympathy, many Europeans have again branded America an arrogant superpower and Bush a unilateralist with little regard for other nations' interests.

Russians seem to share those sentiments, but they are complicated by jealousy of America, or resentment, or both. Many Russians recall being proud for decades to view themselves as the world's other major superpower, feared and reviled by other nations. Today they express longing to be a nation as wealthy as the United States but also anger that U.S. leaders no longer respect Russia as a rival. Some warn that Russia still has about as many nuclear weapons as the United States.

"Neither of us want any wars," said Marina Yankovskaya, 31, a bookkeeper. "So the world must still consider Russia a giant power like the U.S. The world must take into consideration the weapons Russia still has."

If anyone is making the mistake of ignoring Russian interests, she said, it is Americans. "They are concerned with their internal problems, then they also think they can spread their interests all over the world without feedback and without knowing the interests of other countries," Yankovskaya said.

German Petrov, a 38-year-old math researcher, also said that it is important for the United States to appreciate Russia. Not only is Russia "a strong power in terms of weapons," but it has a rich cultural history, he said.

Yet Petrov has a rosier view of the United States - where he desperately wants to live. Russia, he says, is stuck in the past, unable to hasten economic and democratic reforms. Petrov believes he would make more money and enjoy more opportunities in America. He holds out little hope that the promises Bush and Putin have made for economic ties will make Russia any more attractive to him.

"Bush and Putin, they signed all these agreements," he said. "And Bush said this is the end of the Cold War. But I'm doubtful. For common people, all of that doesn't matter much. Life for individuals is not influenced by such international events."

Analysts have said that one of Putin's primary goals in the U.S.-Russian relationship should be to persuade his own people that their country is important. Having Bush come to Moscow to sign a major arms agreement, they said, should have sent that signal.

"The population in general in Russia is really not that concerned about foreign policy," said Clifford Gaddy, a Russia specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I think what they are concerned about and Mr. Putin is quite concerned about, on his own behalf and on their behalf, is just the sense of fairness, of respect. It's such a cheap thing for [the United States] to give, frankly."

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