Obama plays the perfect guest

US President chooses coded criticism over harsh words at Putin's dacha
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The Independent Online

Barack Obama pulled his punches in Moscow yesterday, preaching democracy and democratic values but carefully refraining from direct criticism of Russia and its leaders. In a carefully calibrated speech to graduating students of a liberal economic institute, he continued his policy of "pressing the reset button" with Russia, steering clear from harsh rhetoric about its democratic and human rights credentials.

Reading between the lines, however, there was plenty of veiled criticism. "In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonising other countries," Mr Obama told a packed hall of students and lecturers from the New Economic School in central Moscow. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over."

He said 19th-century thinking about great powers having spheres of influence was outdated, a clear reference to Russia's attempts to assert a special zone of influence in states such as Georgia and Ukraine.

He also gave an impassioned defence of the American system, which many will also interpret as a message to Moscow. "Freedom of speech and assembly has allowed women, minorities, and workers to protest for full and equal rights at a time when we were denied the rule of law," he said. "And equal administration of justice has busted monopolies, shut down political machines, and ended abuses of power."

Reinforcing the message Mr Obama later met with the leaders of opposition parties, including the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, and the radical oppositionist and former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

He also appeared to suggest that, if Russia cooperated on reining in Iran and its nuclear ambitions, the US would abandon its controversial plans for a missile defence shield in Central and Eastern Europe, which Moscow strongly opposes.

"If the threat from Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes is eliminated, the driving force for missile defence in Europe will be eliminated and that is in our mutual interest," he said.

Mr Obama started his day with a breakfast meeting with prime minister Vladimir Putin, still the most powerful man in the country, at Putin's dacha outside Moscow. In their first encounter, Mr Obama praised "the extraordinary work" that Mr Putin had done for the Russian people, an apparent attempt to erase the memory of his harsh comments last week, when he said Mr Putin had one foot in the Cold War past.

Mr Putin returned the compliment, telling the American president: "We link your name with hopes for the development of our relationship."

It was unclear who came out on top of the discussions, though neither leader looked fully at ease during the filmed part of the talks. In a further attempt to brush over Mr Obama's previous comments about Mr Putin, a White House official said the US President had been "convinced that the prime minister is a man of today".

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