Volgograd Forum, October 1, 2001

Warming in U.S.-Russian Relations

During my last visit to Cleveland I spent a considerable amount of time trying to call your attention to the growth of anti-Americanism in Russia at a grass-roots level. If you remember I told you on my departure that I would use the Volgograd Forum's platform in an effort to dispel that dangerous tendency.

This has changed overnight. It was tangible immediately after the terrorist attack on WTC. I could feel people's compassion while talking to them or hearing commentaries on TV. My apprehension was later confirmed by opinion polls. The Washington Post quoted one of them.

"Part of the Kremlin's calculations involve a change in Russian public opinion toward the United States after the attacks. A public opinion poll by the Kremlin immediately after the attacks found that 80 percent of Russians felt sympathy toward the United States, while 8 percent expressed satisfaction at the terrorist assault on America.

"A significant thaw has happened toward America," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant. "We are having a wave of solidarity, and while its nature is not political, it is becoming a political factor." (The Washington Post, September 23, 2001).

I think that such an outburst of sympathy was enhanced by Russians' own unhappy experience with terrorism - from explosions of apartment houses to kidnappings.

Whatever the reasons, there is now a unique chance, in fact, the first one since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to bring our peoples and countries closer together. We who have been trying to achieve this goal for the last ten odd years cannot miss this opportunity.

In one of his recent messages Ted Brown expressed concern that stricter US Government regulations for foreigners wishing to visit the United States may affect somehow our medical exchanges. At this moment it does not look so.

A few days ago the new US Consul General in Moscow came to the office of the Russian newspaper Izvestia and for more than an hour answered direct readers' questions over the phone. He reassured them that there would be no change in treating Russians applying for visas to enter the United States. The new procedure of issuing express visas for those who have already visited the United States will be retained.

As an unusual gesture of openness he invited the newspaper's reporter to come any time to the Consulate and be witness of how its employees work and deal with applicants.

There are other signs of improvement of relations between the two countries. For example, the Russian mass media has greatly reduced the number of negative commentaries about the US policies.

We are also getting positive signals from your side. For example, it was widely circulated in the media here that at a meeting with leaders of Moslem communities in the USA President Bush called on Chechen rebels to break off links with Osama bin Laden and welcomed the new peace initiative of President Putin on Chechnya.

It came to pass that the regular monthly Forum was scheduled for September 14, just three days after the terrorist attack. For a short while we considered changing its theme and addressing it to the events in the USA. But then we decided not to do it. First, we did not have a competent speaker who could address the audience with expertise on this subject. Second, it had been already announced that the speaker would be Volgograd Oblast Governor Nikolai Maksyuta. It was the first time that the Governor agreed to address the Forum while in office and we did not want to miss that opportunity. And after all, we knew there would be questions and some of them on terrorism.

A few months after taking office President Putin appointed seven envoys in Russian provinces in an attempt to strengthen his power against unruly local Governors. Evidently following his example Volgograd Oblast Governor Nikolai Maksyuta appointed after his reelection seven(!) envoys in rural districts of the Oblast. Many of those envoys were former heads of local administrations who sought reelection but failed.

This decision met with resistance of mayors of small towns and rural districts. Some of them openly challenged that move of the Governor saying he wants to kill self-government in towns and villages and spends tax-payers' money by creating sinecures for failed politicians who are his cronies.

The resistance was so great that the Governor, for the first time in the Free-Speech Forum's history, agreed to address our audience on the subject and to face his critics directly.

It was a great success of the Forum that he chose our platform to speak out. We held our meeting at a conference room of the Volgograd Writers' Union. The place was packed with people. There were all seven Governor's envoys present, some heads of small municipalities and rural districts. There were three TV companies, several radio networks and all major newspapers in the region, including those in opposition to the present Governor.

Though more formal than our usual sessions (because of the presence of the Governor), the event was one of most successful ones and had big publicity in the media.

One of the questions was about terrorism. Governor Maksyuta said he sent letters of condolences to the Mayors of Washington, D.C. and New York. He stressed that people of our countries face now a common enemy - terrorism. He also spoke on measures he had taken to protect security of Volgograd Oblast citizens.

Alexander Yevreinov

Volgograd Free Speech Forum


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