Behind the closed door of the Medvedev-Obama Summit: Day 1
After we passed through the de rigueur security checks at the gates to the Kremlin, we were herded together and guided through the sprawling grounds, the political heart of the country. For those who have never been to the Kremlin, you need to schedule yourself a visit.
The Kremlin is not, as many assume, a drab complex of bureaucratic offices dedicated to the task of governing the largest country in the world. The Kremlin (in addition to the government offices) is actually an artistic and cultural treasure, filled with old cathedrals, museums, a theater and marvelous walking parks – all of which is open to the public.
Except today, of course. Today, the seat of Russian government is running in overdrive, catering to an international influx of sleepy-eyed reporters desperately trying to cover the biggest political story of the moment.
The journalists and cameramen, loaded down with their heavy gear, seem to instinctively know where the action is. The caravan of briefcases, laptop computers, cameras and tripods makes a beeline into Cathedral Square, the dynamic heart of the Kremlin and the home of four magnificent cathedrals, some filled with the bones of Russian tsars and saints from ages past.
We enter the doors next to the Assumption Cathedral and go through another security check. After a brief delay, we are taken upstairs into the Kremlin Palace, a vast complex that has been completely restored to its former splendor. We make our way up richly carpeted steps, and past a wall painting that is about the dimensions of a standard swimming pool. The brilliant work of recent art portrays a huge battle scene, with who appears to be St. George in the very center of the action.
Beyond this room lay every reporter’s vision of press headquarters heaven: Rows and rows of tables topped off with food and drink for as far as the eye could see. It was only finger food with (non-alcoholic) beverages, but journalists, it seems, are not usually overly fastidious about what they put into their bodies.
On the sides of the tables were lined up widescreen television screens broadcasting a Russian news channel. Images of Medvedev and Obama smiling through their first meeting of the two-day summit were occasionally interrupted by dreadful news out of China, as well as Russian stocks, which took a heavy beating, it seems, on this historic Monday.
There was also dozens of tables, beyond the eating trough, reserved for Internet and fax machines. In short, the room, which could have served as a grand ballroom in an earlier day, was a curious combination of ornate 19th century Imperial-style architecture, offset by the sleek and sophisticated world of 21st century electronic technologies. The room lacked just one thing: the presidents of Russia and the United States.
Eventually, one thought stated to roll across the room like a giant wave: ‘Are we going to be sequestered in this room for the entire duration of the conference?’ Will we have to cover the event from the widescreen television screens? Will we only get the electronic version of the American and Russian presidents? Nobody seemed to know the answer, but it seemed like a very good possibility.
But around 5:30 PM, a couple of large guys in the far corner yanked open two ceiling-high doors, just like in the Land of Oz. This triggered a spontaneous stampede across the slippery palace parquet, as journalists and cameramen attempted to get the best vantage points.
Now, the first room no longer seemed so impressive. Here, in this majestic hall, every inch of the walls and ceiling space were beautified by some sort of intricate detail, topped off with gold paint or embroidery. Massive chandeliers hung overhead. The entire scene underscored one thought: the power and brilliance that was, and still is, Russia. After all, the electric bill to light this sprawling room alone is probably more than the GDP of many smaller nations.
There is one thing that is very predictable about such events: the journalists are usually kept waiting forever for the leaders to arrive. One Washington Post reporter seated behind me commented contemptuously that “Barack Obama is zero for four in terms of his punctuality.” But in fairness to President Obama, the Russian president was nowhere in sight either.
About one hour later, the magnificent architecture had lost its aesthetic appeal, its distracting effect, and most of the reporters were standing around in small groups, talking to each other. I saw one guy from the Washington press corps straining to translate aloud a Russian press report that gave some details into the meetings between the American and Russian presidents. About 10 other reporters were crowded around him, desperate for any crumb of information that he might enlighten them with. Others ran off in search of the now very distant toilet. Smokers beware: the Kremlin, it seems, is now anti-tobacco, too.
After a 15-minute delay was officially announced, I left my seat and made my way past the menacing-looking phalanx of videocameras in the back in search of the Kremlin restrooms. But instead of walking out the doors where we entered, I headed absentmindedly for a side door in the left corner. I assumed this would be the best place to put the bathrooms, so I walked straight in only to find myself in a huge sitting area, and a very plush one at that.
The people inside were standing around in groups, talking quietly. Naturally, I headed straight for the snack table. Suddenly, I realized that this was no ordinary room. The porcelain coffee cups were all stamped with the Kremlin double-eagle seal, and the silverware actually looked like silver. A waiter approached me and asked if I would like some coffee. I naturally said “sure” and dropped my weary body into an overstuffed armchair, a very welcome relief from the rigid ones out in the stuffy conference hall. I looked around and began to see faces that looked very familiar. Too familiar.
Over there was former US ambassador to Russia Alexander “Sandy” Vershbow, now Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security, chatting away to a group of guys dressed up in military uniforms. Next to him was another former ambassador to Russia, William J. Burns, who is now the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Then entered Elvira Nabiullina, the Russian Minister of Economic Development. Needless to say, at this point I nervously came to the conclusion that I was definitely in the wrong room, and there was not another journalist in sight. But I am happy to report that I did manage to find the bathroom (and a very nice one indeed) before I made my quiet departure back to the reporters’ pit.
Okay, back to the conference. The chandeliers suddenly flickered to life overhead, illuminating the room and signaling the moment that we’ve all been waiting for. With great expectation and pent-up anxiety, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev strolled into the room side-by-side and stood behind a large white writing desk on the left side. The foreign journalists activated their audio sets, which gave them spontaneous translations of the speeches. Mobile phones and digital cameras were held in the air to catch a glimpse of history.
US General Michael Mullen was seated at the writing table alongside his Russian counterpart, General Nikolay Makarov. They signed documents on “development and cooperation” between the US and Russian militaries. They exchanged the signed protocols, shook hand with the presidents, and departed from the hall.
Next on stage were William Burns (filling in for the incapacitated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. These two individuals signed drafts on cooperation in Afghanistan. After a round of signatures and handshakes, they also took their leave.
The stage was left for Obama and Medvedev. Both dressed in black suits, white shirts and red ties, the two leaders added a rich touch to the opulent interior. They spoke words of promise for more cooperation and development between the nations. They spoke for world peace. They spoke for change.
“Our talks have been very open and sincere,” said the Russian president. “And we have agreed to communicate in this fashion in the future.”
Obama’s words were sprinkled with hopeful phrases like “cooperate more effectively” and “more progress in the future.”
The American and Russian leaders agreed to slash their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems by about one third.
Is it too early to call it a “new day” in US-Russian relations? It is very tempting.