A diplomatic jamboree

Published : Jul 04, 2003 00:00 IST

Some of the 40 heads of state and government, who were present in St. Petersburg to attend the celebrations, watch the artwork inside St. Isaac's Cathedral on May 30. - KOJI SASAHARA/ AP

Some of the 40 heads of state and government, who were present in St. Petersburg to attend the celebrations, watch the artwork inside St. Isaac's Cathedral on May 30. - KOJI SASAHARA/ AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin puts up a grand show at St. Petersburg where he mends fences with President George Bush and elicits minor concessions from the European Union.

PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin's spectacular celebration of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city, has proved to be a launch pad for both the new Russia and Putin himself. Built by Peter the Great, the city was conceived as Russia's "window to Europe". Last fortnight's festivities, complete with open-air concerts and laser and water shows, were targeted at bringing Russia not only before the European eye, but also before the world audience. The government reportedly spent $1.5 billion to give St. Petersburg a much- needed face-lift before the anniversary bash, in which Putin played host to more than 40 heads of state and government.

Side by side with the celebrations, diplomatic activity was at its peak in the city. Between showing off its glorious palaces and museums, Putin hosted an 11-member Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit aboard the luxury cruise liner Silver Whisper on May 30. The following day, in the serene ambience of the magnificently restored 18 century Konstantin Palace, Putin hosted a European Union (E.U.) summit, which was followed by the `crucial' meeting with U.S. President George Bush, on June 1. This was the first post-Iraq war meeting between the two leaders. Putin also conferred at length with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

The entire event provided India with an opportunity for a unique diplomatic blitz, with Vajpayee conferring not only with both the Russian and U.S Presidents, but also with the British, French and Chinese heads of state.

THE most notable event of the three-day diplomatic jamboree was the much-talked about Bush-Putin meeting, which had been thoroughly planned days before it took place. Yet, the air of bonhomie that surrounded the meeting and the smoothness with which it went off took many people by surprise - at least a little bit of sabre-rattling had been expected because of Russia's studied opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq.

The two leaders buried their grievances on Iraq in public and firmed their resolve to thwart the spread of weapons of mass destruction to Iran and North Korea. Both leaders agreed that the experience of the Iraq crisis had only brought their nations closer to each other. In fact, Bush candidly declared: "As a matter of fact, I think this experience will make our relationship stronger, not weaker. As we go forward, we will show the world that friends can disagree, move beyond disagreement and work in a very constructive and important way to maintain peace." He added: "The United States and Russia are also determined to meet the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. We strongly urge North Korea to visibly, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. We are concerned about Iran's advanced nuclear programme and urge Iran to comply in full with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Putin, on his part, endorsed Bush's position by reiterating that the current meeting was "taking place at a very crucial juncture of the development of the world, where very dangerous and complex events develop. This current summit meeting yet again confirmed the fact that there is no alternative to cooperation between Russia and the United States, both in terms of ensuring our domestic national agendas and in terms of cooperation for the sake of enhanced international strategic stability." He added that he concurred to "continue efforts in terms of enhancing international stability, fighting against terrorism, and ensuring better strategic stability".

Perhaps the only jarring note came on Iran. Despite U.S. pressure to curb Russian assistance to Iran's nuclear programme, Putin reiterated that despite the fact that Russia encouraged Iran to sign additional protocols of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would result in the opening up of Iran's nuclear facilities to inspections, there was fear in Russia that "the pretext of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme could be used as an instrument of unfair competition" against Russian companies. U.S. pressure has been consistent on Russia's engagement with Iran. Washington wants Moscow to slow down work on the atomic power station it is building near the Iranian port of Bushehr.

Further, Putin and Bush exchanged ratification notes on the Russo-American Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. By this treaty, the two countries' stocks of strategic weapons are to be cut by three times, strongly bolstering the nuclear non-proliferation system. Bush supported Putin on his recent Chechen initiative and invited him to Camp David in September.

EVEN as Putin was engaged in his own diplomatic parleys, Vajpayee had a rather pleasantly hectic time as well. Late on May 30, during his meeting with Putin aboard Silver Whisper, the Russian President noted that the two nations were working in the most sensitive areas. "I am not speaking of only economic cooperation but of developing military-technical cooperation, cooperation in space," he said. The two nations have agreed to increase their bilateral cooperation in both military exercises and space programmes. Russia is set to deliver 72 pieces of Kopyo aircraft radar to India by the end of 2004. The equipment, which is part of a $300-million contract signed by the two countries in 1996, will be installed on the Indian Air Force's MiG-21 fighters.

On May 31, Vajpayee was literally in the thick of things, seated as he was at the head table as were Presidents Bush and Putin, the current E.U. Chairman and Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, and Italian President Silivio Berlusconi, at the banquet hosted by Putin. During the course of the dinner, Vajpayee raised the issue of cross-border terrorism with the U.S. President, and informed sources said that Bush assured him that he would take up the issue at his meeting with President Pervez Musharraf in Washington later this month. He agreed with Vajpayee's rationale that successful dialogue was not possible between India and Pakistan until the spectre of cross-border terrorism was removed.

Informed sources said that Bush agreed that India had to be convinced of the complete cessation of cross-border terrorism for the dialogue to be beneficial and successful. Evidently, Vajpayee conveyed to Bush the Indian position that this had not happened yet and Pakistan had to shut all the terrorist camps. He further indicated that India had no reports indicating that all such camps had been shut down. Vajpayee also told Bush that a sizable intrusion of terrorists from across the border had occurred as recently as May this year. In reply to queries on the next step in the peace process, Vajpayee indicated that this would entail the resumption of civil aviation and road links. He also indicated that there might be an exchange of parliamentary delegations between the two countries and that the visa regime concerned would be relaxed if the necessary channels opened up.

On May 30, the Indian Prime Minister also held an important meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Corinthia Hotel. This is significant as Vajpayee's trip to China next month will be the first prime ministerial visit from India to that country in the past one decade. Hu indicated that China gave top priority to its relationship with India and hoped that the two sides would work "harder" for constructive cooperation between them. The two leaders exchanged views on Iraq, the SARS epidemic and the latest India-Pakistan peace initiative among other issues during the 30-minute meeting.

Vajpayee also met a host of other leaders, including French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

THE St. Petersburg bash was undoubtedly a potboiler of diplomacy where leaders chatted and discussed with one another as they took in the beauty of the newly restored Amber room, or watched the river Neva flow by, or saw artists performing at the famed Mariinsky opera and ballet theatre. For Putin, it was quite a conjuring act, bringing all the arms of Russia's foreign policy together in one place.

The results perhaps should not be judged hastily: Putin has got at least a formal affirmation of friendship from the U.S. and minor concessions from the E.U. The E.U. chose not to criticise Putin publicly on Chechnya despite its differences with him. It has conceded nothing more than a promise of talks on Russia's repeated demand for visa-free travel for Russians through Europe. Vis-a-vis the CIS states, the upshot of the summit was the firming up of plans for the creation of a free trade zone ahead of the group's summit at Yalta in September. However, Putin has undoubtedly made a major effort in opening afresh smoother and better channels of communication between all the parties invited and in this he may well have succeeded.

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