/ 7 July 2009

Obama wants strong but democratic Russia

President Barack Obama said on Tuesday the United States wanted a strong, prosperous but also democratic Russia, as he set out his vision of his country’s relationship with its former Cold-War era foe.

In the most eagerly awaited address of his two-day visit to Russia, Obama reached out to Russia but did not shy away from the differences between the two countries.

The speech to students graduating from the progressive New Economic School came as Obama sought to revive ties with Russia bruised by a string of crises over the last decade.

”America wants a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia,” he told an audience of 1 500 in central Moscow.

”We recognice the future benefit that will come from a strong and vibrant Russia.”

The challenges facing the modern world ”demand global partnership, and that partnership will be stronger if Russia occupies its rightful place as a great power,” he said.

Russia has repeatedly been criticised by the West for a lack of full democratic freedoms under its strongman, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Obama said: ”The arc of history shows us that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not.

”In our own history, democracies have been America’s most enduring allies, including those we once waged war with in Europe and Asia — nations that today live with great security and prosperity.”

He also took aim at corruption, widely seen as one of the scourges of Russia’s post-Soviet society and something that Medvedev has pledged to end.

”People everywhere should have the right to do business or get an education without paying a bribe,” Obama said.

”That is not an American idea or a Russian idea — that’s how people and countries will succeed in the 21st century.”

In his speech, Obama quoted from Russia’s greatest poet Alexander Pushkin and paid tribute to the country’s sacrifices in defeating fascism in World War II.

He lauded Russian culture, saying its writers had ”helped us understand the complexity of the human experience” while painters, composers and dancers had ”introduced us to new forms of beauty”.

Obama noted that himself, his audience and his Russian counterpart Medvedev were ”not old enough to have witnessed the darkest hours of the Cold War.”

But he told his audience — a future Russian elite in business and government — that ”you are the last generation born when the world was divided”.

”Your lifetime coincides with this era of transition,” said Obama.

”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? Those questions still do not have clear answers,” he said.

Earlier on Tuesday Obama had his first meeting with Putin, who told the US president Moscow was counting on him to improve bilateral ties.

The pair sought at their breakfast meeting at Putin’s country residence to project a cordial atmosphere after the US president caused controversy last week by saying Putin had ”one foot” in the past.

Obama praised Putin — seen by most as Russia’s de facto leader — for his ”extraordinary work” as president between 2000 and 2008 and now in his new post as prime minister.

Putin told the US president in turn: ”We associate your name with the hopes of developing our relations.”

Obama was also due later on Tuesday to meet former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and opposition leaders, including the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Medvedev and Obama announced a breakthrough deal for US military transit for Afghanistan across Russia on Monday.

The two countries, which for decades during the Cold War maintained a sometimes perilous nuclear stand-off, also issued a declaration on replacing a key disarmament treaty — including figures for major cuts in nuclear warheads.

The declaration called for a reduction in the number of nuclear warheads in Russian and US strategic arsenals to between 1 500 and 1 675 within seven years; and the number of ballistic missile carriers to between 500 and 1 100. – AFP