Tuesday, August 2, 2016

US Elections ‘Eclipsing Domestic Problems’ for Russians Just as Crimean Anschluss Did

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 2 – As a result of Moscow television coverage, the presidential election campaign in the United States is now “eclipsing for Russians even their own domestic problems” in much the same way that Vladimir Putin’s other foreign actions in Ukraine and in Syria have done in the past, polls suggest.

            In a commentary for Svobodnaya pressa entitled “Trump is Our American Everything,” Aleksey Verkhoyantsev says that a new VTsIOM poll suggests that more Russians are following this year’s presidential contest in the United States than was the case in earlier election years (svpressa.ru/politic/article/153546/).

            In 2008, only four percent of Russians told pollsters that they were closely following the US elections; now, eleven percent say that, although the share saying they follow the US vote “from time to time” has remained about the same, 32 percent in 2008 and 30 percent now. And this is taking place even though Russia has far more domestic problems.

            Pavel Salin, a professor at Moscow’s Finance University, says that this reflects to a large degree the agenda set by state television.  “Central TV channels now devote a great deal of attention to the presidential election campaign in the US, far more than in any of the preceding campaigns.”

            State television, the researcher continues, has created in Russian minds “an intrigue.” Who will win? “Donald Trump who ‘sympathizes with’ Russia, or Hillary Clinton who is ‘hostile.’” 

            Behind this vision stand “the hope of part of the Russian elite that in the case of the election of Trump as US president, relations between Russia and the US will thaw.”  This is especially true given that until recently, the Russian elite was certain that “whoever was elected,” Washington would take “a harsher position” toward Russia even than Barack Obama has.

            Trump, however, has called those expectations into question, Salin says. Not only has the Republican candidate openly talked about the need for cooperation with Moscow, but he is following “the neo-conservative line which Vladimir Putin is following and this means that there is hope that they will find a common language on important issues.”

            The Russian media have clearly tiled toward Trump, he continues, and as a result, Russians have come to believe that “a Trump victory will improve relations between the US and Russia.”  But that is far from certain, Salin says, given that Western elites have shown themselves capable of absorbing even the most radical dissidents from their positions.

            Trump may thus not be able to maintain his stance if he is elected, as “the Western political machine has successfully assimilated those who try to act in ways that do not follow its rules.” Hillary Clinton and Joschka Fischer were once far on the left, but now both have become followers of the conventional wisdom.

            “As far as Trump is concerned, it is still unclear whether he is playing this game and seriously intends to change something in US policy.” And there is the additional issue: “if he plans do will he be given the chance.” Salin says that in his view, “the probability of this is not great, but it does exist.”

            If Trump is elected, “America will occupy a more restrained position on many foreign policy issues and conduct a more pragmatic and less ideologically driven policy.”  That reflects its declining power and its growing maturity, according to the Russian analyst.

            As far as Russians are concerned, he continues, this television-driven attention to the American campaign is playing the same role that the Maidan, Crimea, the Donbass and Syria have played in the recent past.  Several years ago, many who watched Russian TV felt that they were living not in Russia but in Ukraine; now, they feel as if they are in the US.

            Aleksandr Shpunt, the director of the Moscow Institute of Instruments of Political Analysis, agrees, noting that attention to the US elections is distracting Russians from their own problems.  He does not say so, but Verkhoyantsev clearly implies, that is exactly what the Kremlin intends.

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