International audiences have mixed views

Barack Obama’s inauguration drew a largely receptive audience of well-wishers across much of Europe and the U.K., from the corridors of power to the newsroom to the coffee shop. But Russia may prove a different story if the lukewarm reaction to the inauguration festivities is anything to go by.

In Blighty, viewers tuned in en masse in the early evening Tuesday to watch Obama’s swearing in and historic address. Many commentators here have observed that there are high hopes the new regime will mark the beginning of an era of hope and prosperity and reinvigorate the United States’ “special relationship” with the U.K.

Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, heralded Obama’s ascent to the presidency as marking “a new chapter in both American history and the world’s history.”

The country’s most popular terrestrial web, BBC1, devoted two hours to live coverage of the inauguration. BBC News also provided coverage of Obama’s parade to the White House, and an extended edition of the pubcaster’s flagship public affairs show, “Newsnight,” anchored by Jeremy Paxman, originated live from Washington.

Like many in the U.S., deskbound office workers watched as the action unfolded online. The Times of London’s Nico Hines told Daily Variety that there was a strong turnout for the live blog service that ran on the newspaper’s website, with more than 10,000 bloggers logged on an hour before the speech. In the run-up, excitable bloggers mulled topics from Al Gore’s weight gain to whether it’s macho for men to wear gloves. Comments poured in from across the globe, including heartfelt sentiments such as “I am neither black nor American, but from here at the top of a mountain in Wales, I can feel that I have taken part in a most historic event.”

Afternoon inauguration events, catering mostly to U.S. expats, were held across London. The Democrats Abroad Assn. had a $150-a-head black-tie affair at a swanky hotel, while a pub in West Yorkshire served up a Hawaiian-themed Obama burger to mark the day.

According to a BBC World Service poll of more than 17,000 people in 17 countries released Tuesday, 67% believe the new president will strengthen U.S. relations abroad. The most optimistic views were in Europe, where nearly 80% of those surveyed in Italy and Germany, for example, thought U.S. relations with the rest of the world will improve under Obama.

In Spain, a traditionally left-leaning country, the inauguration is seen as history in the making. “The American dream reaches power,” declared El Pais, Spain’s most-read newspaper, dedicating three pages to the inauguration. Pubcaster TVE led its midday newscast, Spain’s most popular midday news, with a report on Obama’s inauguration.

In France, popular expectations for the Obama era run high, with a poll released this week showing 70% of Gauls placing “a lot” or “some” hope in the next president. While relations with Washington have improved significantly since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, few in France have forgotten the nation’s frosty exchanges with the U.S. surrounding the war in Iraq.

“In a country that has long cultivated ambivalent feelings toward Americans, the French assessment … of the new president is surprisingly lenient,” said popular daily Le Parisien. Left-wing daily L’Humanite struck a more cynical note, pondering, “What will happen to the hope of ending the ‘war of civilizations’ launched by George Bush?”

In Italy, the Obama inauguration aired live on all networks, with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia paybox providing the most extensive coverage. Meanwhile, a host of parties took place; the hottest ticket in Rome was the inaugural bash organized by Democrats Abroad on the rooftop of the Radisson Hotel.

Italian dailies trumpeted the news, with the headline in La Repubblica’s front-page editorial enthusing that “Today Racism Ends,” while Corriere Della Sera’s more skeptical headline was “It Won’t Be Real Change.”

Italy’s leftist opposition has been blasting conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, claiming he is downplaying the historic import of the occasion. Berlusconi famously commented that Obama is “young, handsome and suntanned” right after the U.S. election in a blunder that made worldwide headlines.

But not everyone overseas was transfixed by Obama. Russian TV coverage of Obama’s inauguration was downbeat on a day in which news bulletins led with the resolution of the gas war with Ukraine 12 days after Russia turned off supplies piped to Europe in a dispute over nonpayment with its southern neighbor.

Russia’s flagship early evening news show on state-run First Channel devoted much of the first quarter-hour to the gas story — mostly taken up with static shots of a Kremlin conversation between President Dmitry Medvedev, former head of Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom, and its current chief.

Coverage of the Obama inauguration came later, after items about the probe into the gunning down in broad daylight on a Moscow street Monday of a leading human-rights lawyer and newspaper reporter and the social and economic situation in southern Russian republic Ingushetia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had set the reserved tone with comments he made Saturday in Dresden, Germany.

There he told editors, “Obama looks like a sincere and open man, and this, of course, attracts people.”

He added: “It is my deep belief that the most bitter disappointments usually result from excessive expectations. We need to see what happens in practice.”

Last November Medvedev received flak for not immediately congratulating Obama on his election win.

(Nick Holdsworth in Moscow, John Hopewell in Madrid, Nick Vivarelli in Rome, Steve Clarke in London, Ed Meza in Berlin and David Hayhurst in Paris contributed to this report.)

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