Russian Ambassador, Hagel visit UNO

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April 26th, 2012

Omaha, NE – The Russian Ambassador to the United States and former U.S. Senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel spoke with students at the University of Nebraska Omaha today. The two addressed a number of issues including trade relations between the two countries and the battle against stereotypes.

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Addressing a room full of students at UNO, the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak described his job as attempting to add “positive meat to the skeleton of the relationship” between the U.S. and Russia. And his measurement of success, he says, is viewing American coverage of his country.

Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak spoke with students at UNO Thursday. (Photo by Tim Fitzgerald/UNO)

“I will succeed, or my successor will succeed, when we will get at least an objective picture in the American press about Russia,” Kislyak said, “because the way it is presented sometimes reflects the way Russia is seen in this country, and it’s a far cry from what we are and what we are not.”

Kislyak said, “The single biggest problem that we have between us is mistrust and stereotypes that are still haunting us from the years of the Cold War.”

Kislyak said Russia is an absolutely different country today than it was as the Soviet Union, and has made significant advancements in its economy and its democracy over the past two decades. Although, he added, more work needs to be done.

Kislyak also emphasized the importance of normalizing trade relations between the U.S. and Russia, a point Sen. Chuck Hagel picked up on, referring to Congress’ hesitation to lift what’s known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment. That is a 1974 provision that was designed to pressure Russia to allow Jews to emigrate. Hagel said that hasn’t been an issue in Russia for “many, many years,” and called the amendment a “dangerous undermining of a relationship” that should be based on trade and other common interests.

Kislyak was a guest of former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, who serves as Co-Chairman of President Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board. (Photo by Tim Fitzgerald/UNO)

“The Jackson-Vanik amendment has been used on Capitol Hill by both parties to promote an antiquated, totally irrelevant sense of trying to use and keep a lever against the Russians to manipulate their behavior,” Hagel said. “I mean, that’s about as direct as I can put it.”

He added, “It’s completely irresponsible for Congress of the United States to continue to keep that bill alive. And until that issue is resolved, I think you will continue to see a very limited trickle of enhanced trade.”

The Obama administration has pushed Congress to lift the provision, and it’s expected to vote on it this year. But another human rights provision was tacked onto the vote, after concerns were raised about the death of a government critic in a Russian jail. Kislyak told reporters earlier this week the provision could have a “significant negative impact” on Russian-American relations.

Russia is slated to join the World Trade Organization this year, and Kislyak said normal relations could provide billions of dollars in trade for both nations.

Hagel and Kislyak took a number of questions from the audience – ranging from Russia’s stance on Syria to the re-election of Vladimir Putin.

Earlier this year, Russia joined China in vetoing a UN Security resolution calling for President Bashar Assad to resign – a move urged by the United States. And that’s been a sticking point between the two countries. Ambassador Kislyak said Russia is not “defending or promoting” Assad but believes the Syrian people should decide whether or not to keep him in power.

“Why (does) a government that is there, maybe not liked by everybody but lawfully elected, need to go because decision was made here in Washington or Persian countries or elsewhere?” he asked. “Mind you, more than half of the population still support(s) the government of Bashar Assad.”

Thousands of people have been killed in Syria over the past year since an uprising began against the government. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Russia’s veto a “travesty” and said it was allowing the “horrors” in Syria to continue.

Kislyak said there continue to be “vulnerabilities in our political dialogue.”

Hagel said Syria was an example of where the two countries disagree. But he added the nations were coming to similar points now. “The U.S. position right now is not too different from Russia’s as to what do you do next? Do you invade Syria? Do you attack Syria? Is a military option the way to do this? Well, so far at least, the United States has said no.”

Kislyak also answered questions about the recent re-election of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Ambassador said he had a hard time defining what concerns Americans about Putin returning to office.

“He was elected with the strong support of the electorate,” he said. “He is the most popular, and what is the most important, trusted, political leader in Russia today…If it is democracy, then why, he being a young, relatively young politician, at the same time pretty experienced, shouldn’t continue to serve his country if his country wants him to serve?”

Putin is set to take office May 6th, effectively switching jobs with current president Dimitri Medvedev who will become Prime Minister.

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