The day Vladimir put in a surprise appearance
When I told the ABC’s political correspondent Louise Yaxley that President Vladimir Putin was approaching our table, she steadfastly refused to turn around, convinced she was the victim of some B-grade schoolyard trickery.
And who could blame her?
The Russian strongman, a political rockstar in this country, was already all around us on giant TV screens as we sat in the lavish, if hastily constructed, Far Eastern Federal University. Leaders virtually never make unscheduled appearances in the media centres of these big summits and never ever eat at the cafeteria.
The sprawling FEFU campus replete with schmick new buildings, multi-lane roads and spectacular bridges is part of a several billion dollar infrastructure program ahead of this APEC meeting designed to showcase Russian ingenuity, and convince investors that Vladivostok is not, Russia’s “stool of the East”, but rather a fabulous place to do business and an increasingly important energy port.
Already the world’s biggest oil producer, Russia also has huge reserves of natural gas much of it in its far east. Clearly Mr Putin has decided somewhat belatedly that the former super-power’s economic future, just like that of the US and Australia, lay not in an atrophying Europe but in the booming Asia Pacific.
So there we were, Ms Yaxley, the Australian’s Political Editor Dennis Shanahan and your correspondent, seated in the cavernous media centre dining room enjoying a spot of dinner (very heavy on the salmon which is in abundant supply here) along with several hundred foreign and domestic media.
We had been discussing with some mirth, it must be acknowledged, the saturation coverage granted to Mr Putin’s most recent exploits that day on Russian TV. The outdoorsy leader, famed for adventure sports and topless bare-back horse-riding, had taken to the sky in an ultra-light aircraft in a Siberian wilderness area apparently in an attempt to coax wild cranes to commence their migration. It was all neatly caught on several TV cameras and slickly edited and produced for maximum watchability.
Putin the environmentalist, the man of action. The next day he would shake hands with an octopus - seriously!
But now, as we ate, I could hardly believe my eyes that this man of direct action was striding up towards our little table.
It was only as Shanahan and I fired off our startled greetings to the steely-eyed leader “hello Mr President,” and “hello” respectively, that Ms Yaxley realised this was no ruse.
Moments later we were surrounded by a huge ring of reporters and cameras to watch as the president chose the table next to us to drink coffee and confer with men who had followed him.
It’s fair to say his response to our friendly greetings was minimal, constituting a barely discernible smile from his thin cold lips, and perhaps the faintest nod of the blond presidential head. There were no actual words.
That said however, it was a surreal moment even for senior political reporters used to being close to powerful figures.
Never one to miss the significance Shanahan moved like greased lightning afterwards to snag the sugar sachets which the health conscious leader had toyed with but eschewed for his coffee. Keep your eye on Ebay for that.
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