AIM: start

THU, 28 JUN 2001 01:11:45 GMT

Bush & Putin

Body Language

"Welcome to Slovakia" said words printed over the map of Slovenia on a poster put up in many places in downtown Ljubljana by the well-known Loesje group a day ahead of "the historic summit" between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin

AIM Ljubljana, June 17, 2001

The "Slovakia" at the poster was no mistake, but a reminder of the slip the U.S. president made a year ago when, as governor of Texas, he proudly announced he had received "Slovak Prime Minister Drnovsek." It was, furthermore, a cynical response to a joke told by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov, who revealed that Slovenia was chosen as the host of the summit just because someone's finger happened to point at it during the selection procedure. This is why the organizers of the encounter could not rid themselves of the unpleasant feeling that the presidents of the two super-powers were about to meet without the slightest interest in the place where this would occur. This is what actually happened, because despite all hopes and expectations, neither Bush nor Putin passed through the capital of the country they were visiting, and hardly saw anything of it, except from the view from their planes and the 15-kilometer stretch of road linking the airport and the former royal estate near Kranj.

Nevertheless, the Bush-Putin meeting will for Slovenia be recorded as a historical event. Bush arrived in Slovenia somewhat tired after a five-day tour of Western Europe, where the main topic of his talks were U.S. plans for building a ballistic missile shield. As it turned out his tour was fruitless -- European officials failed in convincing their U.S. ally to soften his stance regarding the shield, and even less to accept the Kyoto Protocols and instead of missiles, pay a little more attention to the environment and our planet. That Bush was returning to his home country resolved to continue with his plans for the shield Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek and Slovenian President Milan Kucan also had a chance to see, during talks with their guests that lasted twenty minutes. "The Americans are determined to build the shield and that is what will happen. We would, however, be more pleased if that would happen in agreement with Europe and Russia," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel later said.

In short, during the "historical" encounter in Ljubljana no "historical" progress was made, unless the fact that the two presidents were all smiles when their photographs were being taken, and that they greatly praised their mutual friendship and respect and invited each other for a visit, is taken into account. It is interested to note that even that minimum impressed most of the media as reconciliatory, which was its purpose in the first place. "Before the meeting dialog on the anti-ballistic missile treaty appeared impossible, but at least now they are talking, which is a step forward," the U.S. Fox network said. Lila Sevcova, from the Moscow Carnegi Center, optimistically declared that "the Cold War is over," and that after the summit in Slovenia "Moscow and Washington are no longer enemies." Russian columnists were generally pleased because Putin arrived in Slovenia with China's support for a "multipolar world," and this is why "he had nothing to lose."

Austrian ORF said it was "the first game" between experienced chess player Putin and a newcomer to the political arena, Bush. Italian media paid little attention to the event in the neighborhood the meeting was mentioned, but its host was hardly noticed. The role played by Slovenia in the encounter was pleasing to neither the Austrian nor the Italian public, the latter feeling offended because Bush is due to visit Italy only in a month. France also hardly mentioned the meeting, maybe because this time Bush did not pay a visit to Paris... On their side, the conservative media in the U.S. were pleased and noted that two former communist countries Poland and Slovenia -- "received Bush better than the European allies."

The event in Slovenia went very smoothly. It is no miracle, given that the organizer had lived only for that during the past several weeks. The minute Reuters reported that Bush and Putin would hold their first meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia went on full alert. The government information bureau hired public relations agencies and media outlets, to work on the country's overall image. No one even thought of asking about costs, although it was rumored that Slovenia was to foot most of the bill. Every institution, from the Tourism Association to the Chamber of Commerce, was included in the preparations. Thus some 2,000 accredited reporters received a video about Slovenia, T-shirts that said "I was there with George and Vladimir," jigsaw puzzles and brochures both about the meeting and the 10th anniversary of Slovenia's independence. Slovenian officials did not fail to stress that the selection of their country to host such a summit was "the greatest gift Slovenia could get for such a celebration, and a promotion no money can buy."

For days before June 16 downtown squares and buildings were washed, parks rearranged and roads repaired... All vehicles parked on the road leading from Brnik Airport to the Kranj mansion were removed, special police patrols were deployed on the highway, and police road blocks erected at all intersections... Over 4,700 police secured the presidents, and the hosts proudly stressed that the guests allowed them to use their own troops in "the first circle," and to dispatch snipers to surrounding buildings.

The Slovenian government dutifully and carefully prepared everything so that not even the smallest incident could occur during the meeting. Several days before June 16, a special regime for entering Slovenia was introduced at border crossings, several suspicious tourists were denied entry and all events organized by the Green Party, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, the Intervention Bureau and other groups opposing globalization were banned. Strict security measures, however, still failed in preventing Greenpeace activists from climbing the fence surrounding the U.S. Embassy and handcuffing themselves to anything solid, while armored vehicles patrolled the neighborhood... Special police troops had hardly managed to saw through the handcuffs and carry the activists (mostly from Austria) away, when it was reported that police beat up several members of the Ya Basta group from Trieste, who tried to leave their bus at a border crossing after they were banned from entering Slovenia. The Umanoterra organization, advocating the implementation of the Kyoto Agreement, joined the protest. The greatest ingenuity was demonstrated by the Zagreb group Let 3, which, although stopped on the outskirts of Ljubljana, succeeded in displaying an impressive sculpture of a male sex organ.

During the Bush-Putin talks nothing new or unexpected happened. Everything went ahead as anticipated -- each of them stuck to their respective positions. This was evident at their press conference as well, where the presidents answered six questions. Bush briefly addressed reporters and then let Putin speak; the result, in short, was that there was no agreement on the ABM Treaty of 1972, and that the debate on NATO enlargement was no more successful. "We have to build new relations, beyond the Cold War logic... Friends do not destroy each other... This is the beginning of an open, constructive relationship... Russia could be much better friend to the U.S. than people can imagine, today..." said Bush, promising the forming of a committee to "investigate possibilities of new foreign investment in Russia."

Bush, who during his election campaign made a series of slips, this time around also did not disappoint numerous reporters and officials. He referred to the Russian foreign minister as "Sergei Ivanov, the defense minister," and his attempts to show genuine interest were reminiscent of lines from TV soapers. "I looked the man straight in the eye and I saw that he was sincere... If I didn't trust him, I wouldn't have invited him to visit my ranch..." All this was accompanied by firm handshakes with Putin or a pat on the shoulder of the Russian president. The body language was part of Bush's attempt to show that ice between the U.S. and Russia was thawing. But was it indeed?

Compared to him, Putin appeared more restrained. As far as the ABM treaty was concerned, Putin was terse: "the Russian position is known" and that, therefore, it's pointless "to waste words." Russia still considered all the agreements it signed valid, said the Russian president and condemned all "unilateral action." Still, Putin stressed that the U.S. and Russia were not "enemies," and that the U.S. president "is listening to and hearing our words." After that Putin blasted "extremists" in Macedonia and Kosovo and demanded that the international community not back those who use arms to achieve their goals.

Generally speaking the meeting was useful, maybe even historical, but it is still unclear if a new era has begun. A "star wars" era, launched from Ljubljana, or an era of a new, "transatlantic partnership" between Moscow and Washington. In any case, both guests left Slovenia with adequate gifts -- a sculpture of a horse's head and a crystal ball, the symbol of the Earth.

Svetlana Vasovic