Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#15 - JRL 7007
January 4, 2003
Everyone's Coming to St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is Russia's second capital, and recently it has begun ever more often to take on state representative functions, which has lead to frequent visits to the city by high-ranking Russian officials, President Vladimir Putin, and foreign heads of government and state.

Finnish President Tarja Halonen has visited three times, and the presidents of Iceland and the US have been twice. All in all, there have been around twenty visits of this level to Russia's northern capital over the past year. This is to a large extent due to the Russian President's wish to show his home town to his foreign counterparts and to draw the international community's attention to the city's three hundredth anniversary celebrations.

Questions related to the anniversary and participation in celebratory events featured heavily in many visits. In April, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic came to St. Petersburg for one day. He had time only to lay flowers at the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, visit the Hermitage, and chat with Deputy Governor Vladimir Shitarev. After the talks, the Croatian President promised to remind the administration in Zagreb about the city's twin-town status with St. Petersburg and to help to organise the city's celebrations.

There is no need to remind the Finnish President about St. Petersburg's anniversary. She is already taking part in events devoted to this date. On May 19 Tarja Halonen honoured the consecration ceremony of the Lutheran-Evangelical St. Mary's Church on Bolshaya Konyushennaya Street with her presence. After the church service the Finnish President visited the 'Little Mum' support centre for underage mothers, which has received humanitarian and social aid from Finland for the past 10 years, and the 'Almus' drop-in centre for homeless children. A week later, Tarja Halonen came to St. Petersburg again, this time for talks with Vladimir Putin in Pushkin, and visits to the State Hermitage, the oil terminal in Primorsk, and cultural sites in Vyborg.

Tarja Halonen's next trip to St. Petersburg was to discuss possible solutions to the Kaliningrad problem at the Institute of Russian Literature. The Finnish section of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations will be one of the longest - it began at Christmas and will continue for a whole year.

The head of state of another of Russia's northern neighbours - Icelandic President Olafur Grimsson - came to St. Petersburg twice - in April and September. His spring visit was the first ever state visit by an Icelandic president to Russia. Grimsson, who has a PhD in political science, held talks with the Governor of St. Petersburg and gave a lecture on international relations to students of St. Petersburg state University, where he awarded Professor Valery Berkov of the Department of Scandinavian Languages Iceland's highest national honour - the Order of the Falcon. Grimsson also visited the Hermitage and the Catherine and Yusupov Palaces. In September the Icelandic President stopped off in St. Petersburg on his way to Novgorod in order to discuss questions concerning preparations for the city's 300th anniversary celebrations with Governor Vladimir Yakovlev.

The greatest public anticipation was raised by the back-to-back visits in May and June of US President George Bush, the heads of state of the 'Shanghai Cooperation Organisation' (SCO) countries (Geidar Aliev, Nursultan Nazarbaev, Emomali Rakhmanov, Askar Akaev, Islam Karimov, and Jiang Zemin), the heads of government of members of the Council of Baltic Sea States, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Vladimir Putin also spent several days in the northern capital. He held talks with his foreign counterparts, took part in a meeting of heads of state of the SCO, signed an agreement with Kazakhstan on cooperation in the gas industry, and held a meeting regarding preparations for St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations and socio-economic problems in the North-West Federal District.

In addition, during the Russian President's visit the Usinsk oil tanker was ceremonially launched, a memorial plaque to former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak was unveiled at house No.33 on the Moika River, and a memorial to the great Azeri poet Nizami Gyandzhevi was erected. 576 journalists received accreditation to cover George Bush's spring visit to St. Petersburg. They followed the US President and his wife to the Hermitage, the State University, and the Mariinsky Theatre. Vladimir Putin and George Bush spent an hour fielding questions from students of St. Petersburg State University, and even argued a little over what was most important for a career as president. In Vladimir Putin's opinion, all that is needed to succeed in any field is a sense of responsibility and love. In George Bush's opinion, a leader must surround himself with clever people, be willing to listen to them, be decisive, take decisions without deviating from a given course, and at the same time respect a set of principles and certain values and be prepared always to defend these.

On the second occasion, on November 22, George Bush flew to St. Petersburg for merely a few hours in order to hold talks with Vladimir Putin in Tsarskoe Selo and explain why NATO's eastward expansion did not threaten Russia's interests. This visit was hastily organised out of necessity. It had been proposed that the talks be held in Mexico, but, because of the terrorist act in Moscow, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov flew to the APEC summit and Bush decided to stop off in his newly-beloved St. Petersburg on his way to the Baltic States.

In fact, the US President was not the only leader to pay a fleeting visit to St. Petersburg. Others who came briefly, albeit on unofficial visits, were Alexander Lukashenko, who turned out for the Belarussian team in an ice-hockey match on June 11 in the Ice Palace, and Slovakian President Rudolf Schuster, who gave a lecture at St. Petersburg State Architecture and Construction University, where he received an honorary doctorate. Educational issues were discussed in St. Petersburg by Nong Duc Manh, the Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party, who visited his alma mater, the St. Petersburg State Forestry Academy, and the Prime Minister of Thailand, who visited the Institute of Bioregulation and Gerontology of the North-West Department of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, which has been cooperating with Thai research and business organisations since 1998. Also, Chilean President Ricardo Escobar came to the city for three days in October, and opened a seminar on trade and economic cooperation between Chile and Russia.

All these visits were either official or working, but there were private visits as well. For example, Queen Silvia of Sweden visited a children's centre, an orphanage , and children's hospital No.3, all of which have been under her patronage for several years. The Duchess of York arrived in June with her daughter, Princess Beatrice, and Lord Piers Wedgwood, and visited the Wedgwood china section of the Krispar shop and children's hospital No.15.

This is how the year passed for St. Petersburg. Some of the high-ranking officials want to return to the city in May and take part in its anniversary celebrations. It is not yet clear whether the celebratory week will feature discussions on the economy or the fight against terrorism, but there will certainly be talks on cultural matters and cooperation. And there will be a party: even if all the world's presidents and governments arrive, and all the city's streets are closed, there will be a party.

Vera Heifets, Rosbalt News Agency
Translated by Robin Jones

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