23 January 2009

Students largely favor Obama, support Palestine

I gave a talk to two classes on conflict resolution and human rights through AUCA’s International and Comparative Politics Department yesterday that examined Pres. Obama’s inauguration speech, international press reaction, and what I called the “politics of perception” during the last presidential campaign in which I focused on the political economy of campaign advertising on the TV networks as well as its coverage of the race in both news and entertainment programming. I was particularly interested in the students’ reactions to Obama’s speech and while their comments were, as I suspected, generally positive, they were also critical and thoughtful.

In discussing the enormity of the problems facing the States, one student ask whether Obama might be playing a role similar to that of Mikhail Gorbachev during the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, I said I thought the United States would likely lose its position of global economic dominance, though I believe the nation, unlike the Soviet state, will remain intact. Most of their comments addressed the possibility of improved U.S. relations with the rest of the world, particularly Russia and the Middle East. Many AUCA students identify their national interests with Russia and perceive Putin as an exemplary leader.

I found AUCA students to be remarkably apathetic politically during the two years I taught there—for example, two rounds of national demonstrations designed to topple the Kyrgyz government were largely perceived as an annoyance by most students--but Israel’s invasion of Palestinian Gaza has generated a huge response. There were enlarged news photos from the war, posters made from the front pages of international newspaper coverage, and collection boxes for funding to buy food and clothing for Palestinian children throughout campus. Many of the posters were also defaced, presumably by other students, who either supported Israel’s actions or asked why there wasn’t concern for victims on both sides of the conflict. Still, the overwhelming sentiment appeared to be in support of the Palestinians. Of course, about 70 percent of Kyrgyzstan identifies as Muslim. Among AUCA students, there is also significant and visible number of evangelical Christians, a group comprised largely of one-time Orthodox Christians, typically ethnic Slavs, many of whom have visited the United States through one of the State Department-funded exchange programs.