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U.S.-Russia relations: not cold, but chilly

MOSCOW — Is this what Cold War looks like?

It's a terribly oversimplistic question, of course, the answer to which is likely to begin with, "No, but …" But standing just outside of the entrance to the State Duma building, Russia's lower house of parliament, it's the only question that comes immediately to my head.

It's somewhere around 10 degrees Fahrenheit and security officials won't let me in the building — though I have an approved appointment — because I'm a foreigner, and I need an official escort.

Tensions are high between our two countries.

A day before my visit, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law directly targeting Russians accused of committing human rights violations, denying them U.S. visas or access to America's financial system.

In the week yet to come, Russian President Vladimir Putin would respond during a 4½- hour press conference by calling the American legislation poisonous and that Russia "should not be humiliated." Putin would go on to sign a bill into law that targets Americans wanting visas in Russia and bans Americans from adopting Russian children.

The chatter of the Russian response already is evident as I yo-yo from checkpoint to checkpoint through the Duma building, then finally up an elevator.

I spent the better part of two weeks working to secure an interview with a new young Duma member named Alexander Sidyakin. He's 35, opinionated, well-spoken, provocative and from my research, seemingly cold to America. (The picture on his Twitter account is of a fat, white boxer in American-flag shorts getting punched out by a competitor. He says it's a response to a leader of Russia's political opposition.)

As I'm shuttled into Sidyakin's tiny office, he asks in English if I want tea. After I decline, he begins questioning me.

"Can you explain the reason why American congressmen vote for Magnitsky Act?"

"Can you explain?"

"I don't understand why."

I'm immediately knocked off guard.

• • •

I spent a month in Russia working in the newsroom of a Russian newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, as part of a journalism exchange organized through the U.S. Department of State, the International Center for Journalists and the Moscow Union of Journalists. I won't pretend to say that I understand Russia, its politics or culture.

But what I found, if I found anything, is that large numbers of Americans and Russians have extremely myopic views of each other, a problem that has grown over decades of actual Cold War and stems from our huge cultural and political divisions.

Our narrow views of each other create conflict, which forces one side to act, which forces the other side to react, and — sadly — confirms our view of each other.

Neither side is blameless.

The journalism exchange was born out of Obama's decision to "reset" relations with Russia when he was elected — as in, start over. He had a partner in then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

That partner is now out of power. Putin doesn't use the word reset.

In Putin's marathon press conference, where reporters used balloons or paper airplanes or signs to try to get his attention to ask a question, Putin was asked several times about the potential adoption ban.

His answers were measured, smart and, on the whole, logical.

He said Russians need to do a better job on adopting and taking care of Russian children. He said that most American parents are good, nurturing parents that love the children they adopt. He said what is true, that there have been cases of neglect involving Russian children adopted by Americans. And he said that America's decentralized, state-by-state system of adoption regulations makes it difficult if not impossible for the Russian government to monitor the progress of its children.

Yet, his reaction to sign a complete adoption ban defies our most fundamental sensibilities.

I don't understand it the way Sidyakin doesn't understand why Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law.

• • •

I avoid a direct answer to Sidyakin's questions, uncomfortable of speaking on behalf of all Americans and unsure really what to say.

After all, I wanted to turn the questions on to him. You've probably never heard of Sidyakin, but he's worth knowing. A loyal member of Putin's United Russia party in his first year in the Duma, Sidyakin authored a bill that puts significant restrictions on the ability of people to protest in public places, a direct reaction to antigovernment protests that spread through Moscow during the past year.

He then went to the floor of the Duma and stomped on a white ribbon — the sign of the opposition — saying, "I want to do with this ribbon the same thing that people who ordered provocations wanted to do with our country — I want to tread (on) it."

Sidyakin also sponsored legislation that forces non-governmental organizations — such as Golos, Human Rights Watch and the National Democratic Institute — to register as "foreign agents" and be subject to government audits. Sidyakin and other Russian leaders accuse the groups of trying to meddle in Russian politics.

Sidyakin even floated the idea of legislation to toughen penalties for crimes against the church, after women in the band Pussy Riot performed an antigovernment protest at Moscow's largest Russian Orthodox cathedral.

On most every issue, Sidyakin points out what he sees as a double standard. The antiprotest measure — which he called "freedom of meeting" legislation — was based off of laws on the books in Europe, and not all too dissimilar from laws Tampa enacted ahead of the Republican National Convention.

The law targeting nongovernmental groups, he says, is copied off a 1938 American law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

"If the American government does something, it's good," Sidyakin says. "If another country does exactly the same thing, it's bad. And they're the object of criticism. Why is this?"

During the interview, two of Sidyakin's Duma colleagues walk into his office and sit on his couch. They're waiting for Sidyakin to finish with me. I use the last moments of my time to ask about Sidyakin's political ambitions. He demurs, so I turn to his colleagues.

"Maybe a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt is sitting here," one of his colleagues offers, saying Sidyakin shares Roosevelt's energy.

Sidyakin reminds me more of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio: young, smart and calculating. Above his desk are framed black-and-white pictures of people who inspire him: Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Putin, Mahatma Gandhi, Usain Bolt, Dmitri Mendeleev (who developed the periodic table), Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space).

• • •

The meeting ends and we pose for a quick picture. I head back through the labyrinth of checkpoints and out on to the freezing Moscow street.

Is this what Cold War looks like?

Americans and Russian floating mild insults back and forth at each other, wrestling over adoptions, Iran, Syria, missile defense. Playing games about visas.

No ... even Sidyakin thinks the relations between our two countries are better than they were 10 years ago, and they are definitely are an improvement over where they were 20 years ago. My trip, this article, is evidence of that.

But ... Russia remains an extremely proud and nationalistic country, and as such it will always be seen as something of a counterweight to American democracy. Putin will bristle at comments from American leaders, and our leaders will do the same.

Their government will act. Our government will react. Our government will act, their government will react.

This time, it was about orphan Russian children. Next time it will be something else.

We don't call it Cold War. We call it politics, now.

U.S.-Russia relations: not cold, but chilly 01/05/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 3, 2013 6:46pm]
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