For more than a week now, White House officials have promised that Barack Obama would directly address the issues of democracy, human rights and freedom of speech in Russia, where all three values are often in scant supply. What they did not predict was that he would tie those causes so closely to his own life story.
In an address to graduating students at Moscow's New Economic School, Obama described the "universal values" not as an ideal form of government but as a way of correcting inevitably imperfect governments. He spoke mainly of the American example how freedom of speech allows minorities to petition for equal rights, how competitive elections allow citizens to hold their leaders accountable and how a free media expose corporate and government corruption. Then he made the topic personal.
"If our democracy did not advance those rights, then I, as a person of African ancestry, wouldn't be able to address you as an American citizen, much less a President," Obama said. "Because at the time of our founding, I had no rights people who looked like me. But it is because of that process that I can now stand before you as President of the United States."
Though indirect, this passage amounted to the most direct criticism Obama has offered in Moscow of his Russian hosts, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who have consolidated both power and control over the press in recent years. As the U.S. State Department reported earlier this year, the Russian government has "restricted media freedom through direct ownership of media outlets, pressuring the owners of major media outlets to abstain from critical coverage and harassing and intimidating journalists into practicing self-censorship." Though Medvedev, who was handpicked by Putin, won the election last year with a reported 70% of the vote, he was aided by the state-owned media, which gave him disproportionate coverage during the campaign.
In the same speech, Obama continued his criticism of Russia for its invasion of Georgia last August, with an allusion that was difficult to miss, though again it was carefully worded. "There is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another," Obama said. "These assumptions are wrong."
"Sphere of influence" is a term of diplomatic art, which is often invoked by the Russian government and Western nations in discussing plans for a NATO expansion and the European Commission's Eastern Partnership effort. In his speech, Obama distinguished between Europe's efforts to grow its diplomatic relations with former Soviet bloc countries and Russia's efforts to keep significant influence over its neighboring nations. "America will never impose a security arrangement on another country. For any country to become a member of an organization like NATO, for example, a majority of its people must choose to [join]," Obama said.
The criticism was so carefully cast, however, that it is unlikely to disrupt the tone of close cooperation that has defined Obama's first visit to Moscow as President. Even in his speech on July 7, Obama offered his criticisms less as an attack than as a commentary on historical patterns that he argued are pushing toward greater transparency and citizen empowerment.
"When I was born, segregation was still the law of the land in parts of America, and my father's Kenya was still a colony," he told the graduating students. "When you were born, a school like this would have been impossible, and the Internet was only known to a privileged few. You get to decide what comes next."