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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trading Papers, Jokes and a Hug

APVladimir Putin applauding as Pascal Lamy and German Gref exchange documents at a signing ceremony in the Kremlin on Friday.
It was the standard drill at the 13th EU-Russia summit in the Kremlin on Friday.

Here, as at any summit, the main agreement was hailed as "balanced," talks were universally praised as "constructive" and negotiating partners as "professionals." Leaders signed papers and shook hands. For good measure, the adjective "historic" was liberally applied.

Coverage of summits tends to be dominated by excerpts from the well-choreographed diplomatic dance. The ministers trading jokes in the fourth row, or listening to music in the first, are seldom part of the public picture.

In this case, the three-headed joke huddle involved Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, who was having a good belly laugh with Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin aide for European issues, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Whatever the joke was, Viktor Ivanov, the Kremlin aide seen as one of Putin's top siloviki, sitting next to Lavrov, was not in on it and stared unblinkingly ahead.

Everyone in the Malachite Room of the Kremlin was waiting for the stars of the ceremony -- President Vladimir Putin, EU Commission President Romano Prodi and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose country holds the six-month rotating European presidency -- who had yet to show for the signing of the agreement giving Europe's blessing to Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization.

Punctually, at 3:30 p.m., the rest of their delegations had filed in, making their way down a narrow aisle packed with spotlights, speakers and security lackeys with the requisite uniform of earpieces and telephone cords disappearing into their collars.

Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref had an earpiece of his own, only his was from a music-playing cellphone, and he plucked at the cord to remove it as Fradkov tapped him from behind to whisper something.

Gref took up his assigned seat in the front row, next to EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, and struck up an animated chat with Kommersant's star political reporter, Andrei Kolesnikov, whose colorful dispatches have made him the darling of the Kremlin press corps.

Kolesnikov, describing their conversation in his Saturday article, said he asked how Russia had clinched the deal without giving up ground on the gas liberalization question. Gref's response to him was abstract, but illustrative nonetheless of the quest for something to sign: "We've been telling them: We're good people. You're good people. How can we not agree? And we agreed."

Kolesnikov described how Gref later turned up the volume on his cellphone and began tapping his foot, and then, evidently wanting to share the moment, passed the earphone over to Lamy, who also began tapping his foot. "Could these people really not reach an agreement?" he wrote.

When the heads of state materialized from their lunch, Gref and Lamy were summoned to the table to sign a flurry of official papers, as Ahern (happily), Prodi (happily) and Putin (less happily) looked on.

By all accounts, it should have been, if anything, the other way around.

Not only had the Russian side won the right to keep energy prices at the levels it wanted them, Putin was also spared any pesky reminder of Brussels' strong concern about violations of human rights in Chechnya. Kolesnikov reported that Prodi seemed to have left out that part of his morning speech, even though it was explicitly included in the text of his prepared remarks.

Perhaps that was a price Prodi was willing to pay to ensure the summit went smoothly and bolstered his legacy as the father not only of the expanded EU, but also of closer ties with Russia.

Prodi noted that this was his fifth and final EU-Russia summit. A new head of the EU Commission will be elected later this year. "This [Friday's declaration] is personally, emotionally important for me," he said.

He also thanked the negotiating teams. "They work-ed like hell," he said, pronouncing all the syllables with his Italian lilt.

Pushing up his glasses, he added, "On a more personal note, I want to pay tribute to you, Vladimir. For your cooperation but even more for your friendship. ... Together we've achieved a lot of, you know, results."

In one of four questions from the floor, the Financial Times reporter asked Putin what he would like to see happen with the Yukos shares if they are confiscated, as the president looked askance, eyebrows arched.

Sensing the delicacy of the situation, Ahern ran a bit of interference for Putin, much as his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi did in Rome at the previous summit in November when the thorny topic of Chechnya was raised. He jumped in, pronouncing himself delighted with the agreement reached on "a massive range of issues" and duly recorded over 400 pages. (Gref, whose subordinates helped draft the agreement, said at a subsequent news conference that the tome actually covered 600 pages.)

Putin, it turned out, didn't need much time to collect his thoughts. He climbed back onto a now-familiar soapbox to explain that this is a question for the prosecutor's office, so any talk of shares would amount to pressure on the courts. It's wrong to steal, he continued, and everyone, regardless of the heft of their status or bank account, must obey the laws.

The next question was more friendly, a softball from the Itar-Tass reporter who dutifully helped Putin to equate the human rights violations suffered by the Russian minorities in the Baltics to those existing in Chechnya.

Throughout Prodi's nostalgic farewell display of gratitude, Putin sat poker-faced. In closing the ceremony, he said he wanted to reciprocate, even though it was awkward since he'd be perceived as the cuckoo in the Russian fable who praises the rooster for its having praised the cuckoo in the first place.

"Romano, a big thank you to you," he said, rising to embrace the Italian with an uncharacteristic bearhug.

As Kolesnikov observed, had Putin known what chastisements on Chechnya Prodi had swallowed earlier in the day, the embrace might have been even warmer.