G8: Putin has his day


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

The Times
July 17, 2006

Jokes backfire at G8 as leaders smart from Putin's acid tongue
From Jeremy Page in St Petersburg

LAST WEEK Dick Cheney was the target. On Saturday it was President Bush. Then 
came Tony Blair. No one, it seems, is immune from Vladimir Putin¹s acid tongue.

World leaders must have been wondering yesterday who would be next, after the 
Kremlin chief had embarrassed two of his guests at the G8 summit here with 
barbed jokes about their democratic records.

But they were powerless to respond to a man at the pinnacle of his political 
career and at the helm of a resurgent economic powerhouse.

³What can you say to a man who controls the weather?² asked one Western diplomat
after Russian authorities were reported to have scrambled cloud-seeding jets to 
disperse a rainstorm.

Mr Putin¹s dig at Mr Bush came during their joint news conference, casting 
doubts on the close personal friendship that the two men claim to enjoy. Mr Bush
said that he had told the Russian leader that people in the United States wanted
Russia to promote the sort of democratic institutions that exist in Iraq.

Mr Putin¹s deadpan response caused even the thick-skinned Texan to blush. ³To be
honest, we certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they 
have in Iraq,² Mr Putin said, prompting laughter and applause from reporters.

Later in the day Mr Putin took a swipe at Mr Blair over his links to Lord Levy, 
the Labour party fundraiser.

Asked by a British reporter how he would respond to Mr Blair¹s concerns about 
Russian democracy, Mr Putin said he was always glad to hear fellow leaders¹ 

Then, after a long pause, he smiled and added: ³There are also other questions; 
questions, let¹s say, about the fight against corruption. We¹d be interested in 
hearing your experience, including how it applies to Lord Levy.²

American and British officials yesterday brushed off the remarks as harmless 
jokes between old friends that would neither disrupt the main work of the summit
nor affect bilateral relations.

³We think he has a little joke for every leader,² said a spokesman for Mr Blair.
³We have not lost our sense of humour.²

The issue did not come up again in a bilateral meeting between the two men 
yesterday. But political analysts said that Mr Putin¹s remarks reflected his 
irritation at recent criticism of his own democratic credentials ‹ especially 
from London.

Last week the British Ambassador addressed a conference of the Kremlin¹s most 
ardent opponents, despite a warning that it would be seen as an unfriendly 

³The friendship between Mr Putin and Mr Blair has been undermined,² said Sergei 
Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin. ³President Putin¹s 
remarks were not diplomatic. But he¹s not a diplomat: he¹s a leader. Diplomats 
minimise problems. Leaders confront them.²

Mr Putin aimed another barb at Mr Blair last night, expressing frustration that 
Britain had granted political asylum to Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen rebel leader 
wanted in Russia on terrorism charges.

Mr Putin¹s confrontational style also mirrors his growing confidence on the 
international stage. When he took over as president in 2000, he was written off 
by many as a grey, transitional figure.

Today he is one of Russia¹s most popular and powerful leaders since Peter the 
Great, the tsar who founded St Petersburg in 1703. By contrast, more than half 
of his G8 counterparts ‹ Messrs Bush, Blair, Chirac and Koizumi ‹ are ³lame 
ducks² nearing the end of their tenures.

³I think he¹s enjoying himself. He¹s proud,² said another source close to the 
Kremlin. ³He¹s also a bit of a showman. He¹s a performer and he thinks on his 
feet, including with the media.²

Mr Putin has a long history of making acerbic off-the-cuff comments. In 1999 he 
vowed to hunt and destroy Chechen rebels, even ³in the s***house².

Mr Blair is still smarting from the time in 2003 when Mr Putin, at a joint news 
conference, mocked the failure of Britain and the United States to find weapons 
of mass destruction in Iraq.

And just last week, Mr Putin took a personal stab at Mr Cheney, who criticised 
the Kremlin in May for backsliding on democracy and using its energy resources 
to blackmail neighbours. Mr Putin called the speech an ³unsuccessful hunting 
shot² in a reference to Mr Cheney¹s accidental shooting of a hunting companion.

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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