Thursday, March 16, 2006

Sympathizing with Tyrants

Igor Torbakov considers the controversy between Moscow and the West over the death of former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and points to a fresh surge of anti-Americanism in Russia:
Both the Russian political class and the broad public were strongly against the 1999 NATO operation in Yugoslavia aimed at stopping what the West claimed was the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. It would seem that now the Kremlin has decided to whip up anti-Western and anti-American sentiments within the Russian population, which was generally sympathetic to Milosevic's role in opposing NATO in the Balkans. "Many citizens of our country don't believe in the genocide of the Albanian people. Milosevic remained in the memory of the majority of Russians as the leader of the proud independent state that the American [war] machine had failed to crush," contends Valery Fedorov, general director of VTsIOM, the Kremlin-connected polling agency.

Independent experts also confirm that the level of anti-American feelings in Russia is running high. The polls conducted by the Levada Analytical Center reveal that over the decade almost one-third of respondents have taken an extremely critical stance toward Washington's foreign policy.

Although nowadays anti-Americanism is not an exclusive characteristic of Russian public attitudes but rather a global trend, Russia's negative perceptions of Washington's policies have peculiar features.

First, having been America's main adversary for over half century, Moscow finds it particularly difficult to adjust to its curtailed global role and Washington's seemingly unassailable supremacy. Seeking to limit what it sees as American hegemony, the Kremlin often finds itself in the company of some unsavory allies, not infrequently outright "rouges," only because those leaders are believed to be capable of standing up to the American might. Remarkably, some analysts draw parallels between Russian attitudes toward Milosevic and Moscow's strategy toward Iran. The Kremlin clearly does not want to see the clerical regime in Tehran armed with nuclear weapons, but at the same time, it treats Iran's leadership, as it did Milosevic, as a potentially useful ally acting as a counterweight to the American presence in the region.

Second, the Russian leadership is using the anti-Western and anti-American sentiments to further their domestic political agenda. The government sees the public wariness of the West as a handy instrument for manipulation and mobilization. The Kremlin likely regarded Milosevic's death as a convenient pretext to step up anti-Western propaganda. In this sense, it is symptomatic that the coverage of Milosevic's death on Russian state-controlled television was overwhelmingly sympathetic toward the late Yugoslav leader, with several commentators defending him and blaming his captors for his death.

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