Late-Landing Solana Upstaged by Medvedev

ReutersFrom left, Solana, Barroso, Medvedev and Jansa gathering for an informal meeting at the Russia-EU summit in Khanty-Mansiisk on Thursday afternoon.
KHANTY-MANSIISK -- EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana found out Thursday that it does not pay to be tardy.

Solana's plane touched down about an hour late at the Khanty-Mansiisk airport, where the four planes carrying four leaders to the Russia-EU summit had been timed to arrive in well-spaced intervals.

But with Solana's late arrival, his plane landed at about the same time as President Dmitry Medvedev's -- leaving just one photographer and one cameraman from the gaggle of Russian and foreign journalists waiting to greet him.

"What a disgrace. He probably won't forgive Russia for that," quipped a cameraman for a Finnish television channel.

Another journalist said: "Don't arrive at the same time as the Russian president!"

The exchange reflected the light tone of the day, as the leaders prepared for formal negotiations Friday on a new partnership agreement, energy cooperation and Russia's bid to enter the WTO. A source in the Russian delegation told RIA-Novosti that during talks Thursday night, the EU leaders displayed "enormous interest" in Medvedev's vision for a new European security pact, a proposal he first made in Berlin this month.

But it was also all smiles and handshakes earlier, as Medvedev, Solana, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa flew in to this Siberian oil town.

Medvedev was the last leader to arrive. After he descended from the plane, he broke into a smile as he greeted Khanty-Mansiisk Governor Alexander Filipenko. His smile grew wider as he noticed the dozens of reporters nearby. He briefly waved at them and put on sunglasses, looking reminiscent of his mentor Vladimir Putin, who at last year's summit near Samara posed for photographers wearing shades.

Medvedev did not speak with reporters and was whisked away in a Mercedes limousine.

A couple dozen cameramen and photographers from Russian and foreign television stations had waited for Solana earlier, but when they were told that they could either cover him or Medvedev, only two chose to stay. Incidentally, Solana skipped last year's summit in order to receive an award in Germany.

On Thursday night, the leaders dined at a restaurant serving Russian cuisine and later attended a concert.

Medvedev was the first to arrive at the restaurant and greeted the EU leaders at the entrance, RIA-Novosti reported. Medvedev asked Solana whether he would watch the Euro 2008 semifinal between Russia and Spain, saying he would try to make the time, the report said. Solana, who is Spanish, said he was keen to watch the game, scheduled to start in the wee hours of Friday here.

As soon as Barroso arrived, he guessed the topic of conversation. "Discussing the upcoming football battles?" he asked, adding that he would also watch the game.

Jansa arrived last.

The game was to be broadcast for journalists on the main screen at the summit's press center.

A member of the Russian delegation told RIA-Novosti that the meeting at the restaurant took place in a friendly atmosphere, and the EU leaders were surprised to learn how to fan coals with a boot to brew tea in a samovar.

On Friday, the leaders will meet for the formal talks at the Yugra-Classic concert hall in the center of the town. The main meeting will be held on the second floor of the hall's Amadeus restaurant, where a big oval table has been installed for the event, said Alexander Vovnenko, a spokesman for the concert hall.

Built in 2005, the concert hall has its own pipe organ and is the epicenter of the town's cultural life.