Obama Slur Blows Putin's Cover

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin's successful push for Syria's chemical disarmament may have given him a rare shot at global statesmanship. A photo of the Obamas with a banana demonstrates why his country's political class isn't ready for that role.

Any legislature has its share of idiots. Russia's parliament, though, has the special distinction of being dominated by people whose primary qualification is loyalty to Putin. The natural result is that they tend to be deficient in other areas -- such as in their understanding of racial issues.

The mindset was on display Sept. 13 when, amid much gloating over the way the Russian leader outmaneuvered U.S. President Barack Obama on Syria, parliamentary deputy Irina Rodnina used her Twitter accountto share a picturein which Obama and his wife appeared to be staring hungrily at a banana. Many Russian bloggers saw it, understandably, as a racial slur.

"This is a free country," journalist Alexander Plushev wrotesarcastically on Twitter, alluding to the many ways Russia's parliament has sought to squelch freedom of expression in recent years. "Anyone can go out on the street and say, 'Obama is a monkey.'"

U.S. diplomats were not amused. The American embassy in Moscow respondedon its official Twitter account by quoting Thomas Jefferson: "Bigotry is a disease of ignorance." Ambassador Michael McFaul bemoanedRodnina's "outrageous behavior, which only brings shame to her parliament and country."

Rodnina, a three-time Olympic champion figure skater, did not apologize. She said on her microblog that she had received the picture "from the USA" and added, "freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and your hang-ups are your responsibility."

Some of Rodnina's colleagues in the Russian parliament agreed. "As a deputy and a citizen, she has the right to post any pictures that are not against the law," parliamentary ethics commission member Yan Zelinsky said, accordingto the website Gazeta.ru. "She sees the U.S. president as a person who likes bananas? What's wrong with that? It's not a crime. The U.S. government is probably paying bloggers well to create a scandal."

Another deputy, Alexander Ageyev, was also forgiving of Rodnina's attitude. "When we are mad at Barack Obama, everyone associates him with bananas," the website Snob quotedhim as saying. "Now if Rodnina depicted him as covered with fur and having a tail, that would be going overboard."

After a while, Rodnina, though still unapologetic, removed the offending picture from her Twitter account. Her son and daughter live in the U.S., where Rodnina founded a figure-skating school. "When she published this, I would assume the American part of her family's hair stood up on end," Snob quotedblogger Anton Nosik as saying.

Attacks on Obama coincided with sycophantic praise of Putin. Sergei Komkov, head of a non-governmental organization called the All-Russia Education Foundation, sent a letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee asking that Putin be nominated for a Peace Prize. "If Mikhail Gorbachev received it in his time, what makes Vladimir Putin worse?" Komkov said, according to the website Pravda.ru.

Komkov's initiative received widespread coverage in the state-controlled media, even though the Nobel Committee is no longer accepting nominations for this year's prizes, and Komkov, known in Russia mainly as an opponent of standardized testing for high school graduates, does not wield much influence in Oslo. Some pro-Putin media outlets even publishedKomkov's letter in full.

The proposed nomination is "novel, risky, unexpected, provocative," columnist Dmitri Gololobov wrote on the website Slon.ru. "No more provocative, however, than a black U.S. president."

Russians usually show as little interest in foreign affairs as do most Americans. Isolationism, bigotry and xenophobia have flourished in a country relegated to playing a secondary role in international affairs, grumbling against America as the sole superpower but no longer able to provide an alternative. Now, the ugliness is being displayed for all to see. If Putin is serious about being proactive on the global stage, he will need to do something about educating his supporters so they do not turn his exposure into an embarrassment.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net