On March 18, Putin was re-elected as president of Russia for his third term. While the leader has faced harsh criticisms on the world stage for restricting free speech inside his country and implementing discriminatory policies against LGBT people in Russia, his approval ratings in Russia tell a different story. The international studies department held a forum on March 8 to explain why this might be and discussed the current state of Russian-American relations. The talk was led by Sharon Tennison, who worked with Putin in 1992 and is the founder of the Center for Citizen Initiatives, and USF politics professor and intelligence expert Filip Kovacevic. Tennison, having worked with Vladmir Putin in person, gave insight into the personality of the notorious leader. Kovacevic discussed U.S.-Russia relations, specifically between the two leaders.
Tennison worked with Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1992 as part of the Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI). She found him to be professional and very different from the previous Russian bureaucrats she had worked with. Tennison said Putin was the only official that she never had to bribe. Tennison also described Putin as an “intellect and an introvert,” which she claims should have worked against him, as those are not favored traits in most Russian politicians when compared to outright strength and outgoing leadership. Despite that, just nine years later, Putin became president of Russia for the first time.
Sharon Tennison first created the Center for Citizen Initiatives in 1983, during the Cold War, and is adamant that the situation today is similar to the situation back then. What’s feeding this, Tennison believes, is misconceptions of Russia and Russian life along with the misrepresentation of Russia in American media. Tennison hopes the rift between the United States and Russia can be alleviated by “citizen-to-citizen initiatives,” where everyday people of both the U.S. and Russia are brought together to share experiences and ideas. In order to address the tensions, the CCI is launching a new “bottom-up diplomacy” program called Russians Meet Mainstream Americans (RMMA), in which four Russian citizens will go to Atlanta, Dallas, Fort Worth, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington D.C. These people are not affiliated with the Russian government and have come to America to “answer questions, share ideas, and seek solutions.”
Kovacevic discussed Putin’s history in Russian politics of the last 18 years since 2000, when he first became president. “Putin has been demonized by the West because they need a common enemy,” he said. He also commented on the relationship between Trump and Putin, saying, “In my opinion, Trump admires Putin and would like to have a situation like that.” Kovacevic is currently on leave from the University of Montenegro, where he has taught since 2005. From 2003 to 2005, he taught in Saint Petersburg, Russia at the Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
This talk was open to the public and was attended by several USF students, including sophomore international studies major Medina Suta. She came to event in order to learn more about the Russian elections. “I found the personal testimonies about Putin to be particularly interesting, as they were not at all what I expected Putin to be like,” she said. “Overall, the presentations challenged my preconceived notions about Putin and the Russian government in general.”
Professor Kovacevic ended the talk on a hopeful note. “Russian and the United States have a history of cooperation,” he said. “I’m happy that the younger generations and students here on campus are not buying the official narrative.”