Europe

Why Donald Trump strikes a chord with Russians

  • 7 September 2016
  • From the section Europe
Media captionRussia's most famous pop star explains why he's hoping for a Trump win

On stage in Sochi, Russia's most famous pop star whips off his sequin-encrusted angel wings and launches into a love song.

Philipp Kirkorov was once referred to as Russia's Michael Jackson. The man who called him that was America's Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

"Oh, Donald Trump, oh my God," exclaims Kirkorov, when I mention the tycoon's name. "First time we met, we had a feeling we know each other many, many years!"

The two men have indeed known each other for more than two decades. In 1994, Kirkorov and his ex-wife Alla Pugacheva performed at Trump's Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.

"After the show Donald Trump came to our dressing room. We got a big, fantastic gold trophy from him and his organisation for being the first Russian artists to play the Taj Mahal. When Alla and I divorced, I kept the trophy!"

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gabriela Isler from Venezuela was crowned Miss Universe when Donald Trump took the competition to Russia

In 2013, when Donald Trump brought the Miss Universe Contest to Moscow, Kirkorov was one of the judges. He has been a guest in the Republican candidate's home.

A President Trump, he believes, would be Russia's friend.

"He was very often a guest of Russia, he loves Russia and Russians," Kirkorov tells me. "If Trump will be President, the relationship between our countries will be much closer. And I pray for that. Because we are two big countries, two big nations. We must be friends."

Kirkorov's famous friend is singing from the same hymnbook.

Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along with people? Wouldn't it be nice if we got along with Russia?"

Donald Trump, July 2016
AP

"If we could get along with Russia, wouldn't that be a good thing, not a bad thing?" Donald Trump suggested on the campaign trail.

He has also hinted he would consider recognising Crimea as part of Russia, he has criticised Nato and suggested lifting sanctions against Russia.

So, how unusual is it for a US presidential candidate to be so pro-Moscow?

"It's never happened - it never happened in the last 70 years or so," believes Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow, currently director and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

Image caption A pro-Putin activist named Maria backs Donald Trump outside the US embassy in Moscow

"Trump says things about Russia, about Putin personally, that are way beyond convention for a Democrat or Republican candidate, or for a politician in either party."

But why?

Is Donald Trump, as some of his critics claim, a Putin plant? A Russian agent?

That may be giving President Vladimir Putin rather too much credit. He is powerful but perhaps not so powerful that he can fix a US election.

Still, there is a suspicion that a recent cyber attack on the Democratic Party and the subsequent leak of embarrassing emails were a Russian operation.

Was Russia behind Democrat email leak?

"I think we know pretty definitively that Russian organisations hacked those emails and were on those systems," concludes Michael McFaul.

"Our intelligence folks have said that and senior people have said that off the record. Second, we know that WikiLeaks dumped those emails to purposely influence the course of the Democratic Convention and damage Secretary Clinton as a candidate.

"What we don't know definitively: did the Russians give the emails to WikiLeaks or did they obtain them through a different source? I fear we'll never know that. The Russians could have made that transfer without WikiLeaks ever knowing it was them. But, of course, if it were true - and the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong - that's a very direct attempt to influence the course of the elections in America."

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Image caption In July, Donald Trump and Russia denied hacking emails from the Democratic National Committee

Moscow denies scheming in US politics.

"We're not involved. We're not supporting Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or others in any sort of domestic elections," says Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. "It's not our business. It's up to the American people to decide. I think it's a very clear, honest and respectful position."

And those hacking allegations?

"It was people from the Democratic Party who accused Russia of doing this," Ms Zakharova tells me. "Don't you think it's part of the game? We're treating this as part of the game. Their game: the domestic US political game."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Vladimir Putin had a strong understanding with Italy's no-nonsense ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi

And yet, with Hillary Clinton adopting a hard line on Moscow, and Donald Trump praising President Putin, is the Kremlin really sitting on the fence?

"Obviously, Russia would prefer Trump," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs.

"It's quite understandable that Russia would prefer the candidate who is making statements. I wouldn't call them pro-Russian, but they correspond pretty well to the Russian picture of how the world should be.

"Personalities who reject dogmas of political correctness - like the former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi - have enjoyed a much better understanding with Putin than those who stick to political correctness. In this regard, psychologically, I can imagine Putin and Trump understand each other."

Back at the pop concert, the Russian Michael Jackson cannot see what all the fuss is about.

"I think it's good that Donald Trump loves Russia so much," Philipp Kirkorov tells me.

And if Trump does become President of the United States, I ask.

"I will congratulate him personally," replies Kirkorov. "I will write him a letter! Go, Donald!"

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