By Leonid Bershidsky
"Poor Americans! It's so hard for them to choose between Romney and Obama. Lucky Russians! They only had to choose between Putin and Putin."
On Nov. 7, this joke made the top 20 on anekdot.ru, a popular Russian humor website.
If Russians could have voted in the U.S. election, President Barack Obama would almost certainly have won by a wide margin. After all, Republican nominee Mitt Romney had branded Russia America's “number one geopolitical foe,” earning President Vladimir Putin's sarcastic thanks.
“Great news this morning! Hurrah!” tweeted MTV Russia host Artem Korolev. “Obama is the new U.S. president, and Romney, a man still living in the 1950s, is good and gone.” The names Obama and Romney were among the top trends on Russian Twitter the day after the election, and most bloggers celebrated the Republican's loss. “It's probably for the better that it's Obama,” wrote master_5h00 on Twitter. “He just doesn't give a damn about Russia, and Romney doesn't give a damn aggressively."
In the Kremlin, too, one can imagine a huge collective sigh of relief at Obama's victory. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev eschewed diplomatic etiquette and derided the losing candidate: “I am glad that the man who considers Russia the number one enemy will not be president. That's ridiculous, some kind of paranoia. Obama is a known, predictable partner.”
Actually, Obama's win probably won't change much in U.S. - Russian relations. “We don't have a modern agenda with America,” political commentator Fyodor Lukyanov told the BBC. “With Obama, Romney, Clinton, Bush, whomever -- we still discuss the same set of questions that arose during the Cold War," such as nuclear disarmament and the fates of various rogue nations.
If Putin cannot get any real strategic benefit from Obama's win, he will at least try to score a propaganda point or two. His allies undertook rather comical – or possibly tongue-in-cheek – attempts to show that Obama had more in common with Putin than a dislike of Romney.
On Election Day, a group connected to Russia's notorious Central Election Commission, widely believed to have rigged most of the nation's recent elections, released a report highly critical of the U.S. voting process, according to the pro-government newspaper Izvestia. The procedure for electing the U.S. president "does not meet international electoral standards," the report's authors wrote, noting unregistered voters and residency requirements as key problems.
“The probability of the incumbent winning is 90 percent,” Izvestia quoted one of the report's authors, Igor Borisov, as saying. Borisov pointed out that by working publicly to combat the consequences of Hurricane Sandy, Obama effectively used the power of his office to tilt the scale his way. In a separate paper, Vladimir Churov, head of the election commission, stressed the role of big money in the American political process.
Putin's propaganda machine has done a lot since last year to convince Russians -- at least those who watch government-controlled TV -- that there is no such thing as a fair election anywhere in the world. Now that the vote is over, Russians are being told that Obama won re-election for the same reason as Putin: A nation's basic need for stability.
“US citizens are apt to trust the person they are used to, even if that person does not perform all too well,” Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Russian parliamentary veteran and currently a Putin ally, wrote in his LiveJournal blog. “Unemployment and the crisis are still there. Obama has failed to keep most of his promises.”
Zhirinovsky suggested that the United States could benefit from a constitutional change similar to the one Russia made last year, when it increased the president's term from four to six years: “Practically all presidents remain for a second term anyway.”
In Ukraine, the re-election theme played well with allies of President Viktor Yanukovich, whose ruling party just won its second parliamentary vote (amid reports of unfair play). Hence the joke in Kiev: “Yanukovich congratulated Obama by saying that America followed Ukraine's lead in voting for stability.”
Deputy Prime Minister Boris Kolesnikov, in all seriousness, recently likened Obama to Yanukovich, saying they both represented powerful local clans. “This is a law of life,” Time magazine quoted him as saying. “Obama is from Chicago, so his whole team is from Chicago.” Yanukovich is the leader of the so-called Donetsk clan, with roots in Ukraine's second city. Kolesnikov, a multimillionaire, also believes that in the U.S., the political role of “oligarchs” is as important as in Ukraine.
The clumsiness of attempts to liken America's electoral system to Russia's and Ukraine's was not lost on local commentators. “Such candidates as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would have lost outright if they ran in Ukraine," wrote blogger Gennady Balashov. “What they talked about – the future – does not concern this country's citizens. The people of Ukraine voted for the stability of their poverty. … There is no room for dreaming.”
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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-0- Nov/07/2012 18:29 GMT