Moscow presses the "red button"

On Friday and Saturday on Pushkin Square in the very centre of Moscow people pressed the famous "red button" hundreds of times, but without bringing the American missile defences into a higher state of readiness. This Rossiyskaya Gazeta event was exclusively peaceful and aimed at US President Barack Obama's visit to Moscow.

For two days any resident or guest of the Russian capital was able not only to give a personal message to the heads of Russia and the USA, but also to play their part in history. Two dozen TV and stills cameras impartially captured the scene as young and old alike pressed around a unique museum exhibit on Pushkin Square. In order to stage the "Rebooting relations between America and Russia" event, Rossiyskaya Gazeta asked Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to provide it with a unique "red button" for two days. The head of the foreign policy department duly gave the relevant instructions.

For many years the red button was unambiguously associated in the minds of Soviet people, and then Russians, with the launch of ballistic missiles and the start of the third world war. For the Americans the associations were similar, and the colour red was generally regarded as extremely hostile. From time to time Washington would mention the "red threat", the "red machine" or the "red phone", which appeared during the Cuban missile crisis.

And then a new face took charge at the White House at the beginning of this year - the Democrat Barack Obama. Once he was in office, he proposed rebooting Russian-American relations. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went even further - she created a symbol of this rebooting. In Geneva at the beginning of March, during her first meeting with Sergei Lavrov, Hillary Clinton gave the Russian minister a red button. By pressing it together, they effectively gave the official start to the rebooting of relations between Russia and the USA.

Four months have passed since then. Of course, we could have waited a few days and then quizzed the experts: "How far have the presidents managed to start a real rebooting?" But Rossiyskaya Gazeta decided to take a different tack, by involving people's diplomacy in the negotiating process.

And so Friday came. The weather forecasters were wrong again, fortunately, and instead of the promised showers the sun shone. "Goodness, I haven't got any make-up on. How can I have my photo taken with the presidents?' said student Tatyana, grabbing her friend's hand and running off somewhere. A few minutes later she returned, fully made up. The two girl friends joined the queue of people waiting to press the button and pose arm in arm with the presidents.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta asked senators Mikhail Margelov and Vyacheslav Fetisov to open the event. They pressed the button together. "Can people's diplomacy help to reboot relations between America and Russia?" I asked Senator Margelov a few minutes later.

"It seems to me that bringing big political issues to the attention of the public is extremely important. Without people's diplomacy it's impossible to bring the voice of the people to those who deal with the real business of foreign policy. The interest in this event - look how many people gathered here - is a very positive signal for both President Obama and President Medvedev. The Rossiyskaya Gazeta event shows once again that we don't harbour a spirit of enmity towards the Americans. We want to help them reboot our relations. That's why we gathered here today," said Margelov.

Fetisov agreed with Margelov: "Russia and the USA have come to realise that we need to be closer, to consolidate our common efforts. I can say from my own experience that the people who live in Russia and in America are normal. Now we are moving towards a mutual rapprochement. No one can fail to notice that."

"What fine fellows you are. But what should we write to the presidents?" pensioner Lidiya Alekseyevna asked me. On learning that freedom of creativity was being welcomed, she burst out laughing: "An old woman rushes out into the street and all of a sudden she finds herself in the thick of the event. It's amazing. Let's hope the presidents manage to find a common tongue. That's what I'm going to write." My attention was drawn to three girls. I wasn't mistaken - they turned out to be Chinese students. "I pressed the actual button that Clinton and Lavrov held in their hands. But I'm not going to write anything to the presidents. They already know what they need to do," said Qian Yinshan.

The camera shutters continued to click around us. "Take my picture too, my dears," pensioner Alya Mikhailovna asked the photographers. After posing, she told me she was very grateful to the Americans. "During the war we ate their blocks of cocoa. And virtually everyone where we lived was dressed in school uniform that our mums sewed from American cloth." "And how are relations between Russia and the USA developing today, in your view?" I asked Alya Mikhailovna. She replied like a real diplomat: "You have to treat yourself a bit better, and then other people will start to treat you with respect." Who would argue with that!

"The new administration headed by President Obama is now showing a willingness to change the situation and to build more effective, more reliable and at the end of the day more modern relations, and we're ready for that."

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia.

"I'm trying to `reboot' relations with Russia because I believe that Americans and Russians have shared interests in many areas, but in recent years our governments have not developed cooperation in these areas as actively as they could have."

President Barack Obama of the United States.

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