By Jill Dougherty
Just before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swore in Mike McFaul on January 11 as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, she told the audience packing the State Department's Benjamin Franklin Room that "Mike's reputation precedes him."
Yet it's that very reputation that has Russia eyeing McFaul with suspicion, wary that the ambassador, who arrived last Saturday, is looking to create a Russian version of the Arab Spring.
From the start, McFaul's mission to Moscow has been different. As Clinton explained to the audience that day, rather than send the Russian Foreign Ministry a diplomatic note announcing the appointment, the president took it upon himself to tell Russia's president, in person, about it.
"When President Obama saw President Medvedev at the G-8 summit in Deauville in May he simply said, 'I'm planning to nominate Mike to be the next ambassador to Russia,'" Clinton explained, "and President Medvedev responded immediately with a tone full of respect, 'Of course. He's a tough negotiator.' And that was that."
But it isn't his negotiation skill that has Russia nervous.
On McFaul's second day on the job in Moscow he was slammed by Russia's government-controlled Channel 1 television. "The fact is that
McFaul is not an expert on Russia," said a Russian commentator. "He is a specialist solely in the promotion of democracy."
The program noted his previous work in Russia with the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. Congress-founded, non-governmental organization that the channel said was linked to U.S. intelligence services.
James F. Collins, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001, now director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told reporters Thursday that McFaul, as ambassador, "has a responsibility to be in touch with all elements of the political spectrum at this time" in Russia "and the Russian government knows perfectly well that that's the policy and that's the way the embassy pursues its role in an electoral period."
"I did it," Collins said, "my successors have done it and my predecessors have done it."
"The fact that they choose to make this an issue or to raise this question, I think, is simply a part of the political campaign, it's part of the anti-American card," he added.
Presidential elections are scheduled in both countries this year - Russia's March 4 and the U.S. election November 6 - and "cold war" rhetoric is rearing its head yet again.
Mike McFaul, 48, is not a career diplomat but has been hooked on Russia ever since studying Russian in Leningrad - now St. Petersburg - as an undergrad at Stanford University. Later, as a professor at Stanford, he became one of the best-known American experts on the country, author and co-author of academic tomes on weighty subjects like "Dictatorship and Democracy: Russian Postcommunist Political Reform" and "After the Collapse of Communism: Comparative Lessons of Transitions."
In the rarified and sometimes musty world of Russia experts Mike McFaul stood out: young, brash, irrepressible, able to make Russian studies, well, fun.
During the 2008 election, McFaul threw his lot behind Barack Obama, advising him on Russia. When Obama was elected, McFaul became special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council, where he helped develop the "reset" policy.
He was in Geneva with Secretary Clinton in March 2009 when Clinton handed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a big red button, meant to symbolize the reset, which staff personnel mistranslated into Russian as "overloaded." The "reset" survived, racking up some success, including the New Start agreement
But relations recently have been rocky, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's announcement that he will run again for president unleashing a torrent of criticism from Putin's opponents, who attacked his "managed democracy." Pro-democracy/anti-Putin demonstrations, organized through social media like Twitter, Facebook and the Russian site "VKontakte.ru," are transforming the political environment.
McFaul's closeness to Barack Obama could serve him well in his new post; Russia's leaders know he has the ear of the president. But his expertise in democracy issues and regime-change in non-democratic states could raise questions in Moscow, where some close to the Kremlin worry about an Arab Spring-style democracy movement spreading to Russia.
They probably won't be asking for autographed copies of his book "Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can."
A leading newspaper, Kommersant, in an online version January 11, featured this headline: "The US sends a specialist in Color Revolutions to Moscow." The reference to "Color Revolutions" includes Ukraine's 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, which upended Moscow-friendly leaders in its neighborhood.
In December, President Putin himself accused Hillary Clinton of fomenting revolution among his opponents: "They heard this signal," Putin said, "and with the support of the U.S. State Department began their active work"
For McFaul, however, it's full steam ahead to Moscow. He arrived Saturday with his wife, Donna, and two young sons to take up his post. In a YouTube video meant to introduce him to average Russians, he pledges to travel the vast country, getting to know its citizens.
"I'm interested in meeting not only government officials but people from other political parties and movements," he says in the video.
"Business men and women, civil society activists, and regular Russians just like you."