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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hungry Cops and Signs of Chaos at G8

MTA security guard standing near television equipment in the G8 media center.
While the cameras were running, there were few surprises at this weekend's meeting of G8 finance ministers. But behind the scenes, police officers hungrily invaded the press center cafeteria, Britain's chancellor of the exchequer told his favorite finance minister jokes, and security men vigilantly guarded against sandwiches wrapped in plastic.

The scrutiny was intense for the first Group of Eight event with Russia in charge.

Europeans, jittery after recent cuts in Russian gas deliveries, came to press for increased energy supplies and diversification. Russia, meanwhile, sought to quell doubts about its place among the world's richest democracies by playing the trump card of its vast hydrocarbon wealth.

And though ministers were unanimous in calling the gathering a success, some signs of chaos were not far from the surface.

As host, Russia's Finance Ministry accredited more than 700 Russian and foreign journalists to cover the event, but left many of them scrambling for details about the schedule of events until the delegations arrived on Friday.

Two telephone hotlines set up by the ministry gave busy signals from morning till night last week, while one spokeswoman said the weekend's schedule had still not been finalized as late as Thursday.

The ministers gathered in the opulent National Hotel, with views looking out onto the Kremlin -- at least from the windows that were not blocked by a huge combined security detail of hotel staff, Federal Security Service officers and security personnel from each national delegation.

The grim faces did not spoil the mood of British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, however, who entertained the other delegates between sessions with "his favorite finance minister jokes," Canadian Minister James Flaherty said.

Flaherty, who was making his first official trip since his appointment last week, told journalists Saturday that Brown had welcomed him to the club by asking, "What are your two best days as finance minister?"

The punch line: "Your first day and the day you leave."

The journalists' laughter was mostly polite.

But few reporters were in joking mood after the trip to the off-site press center, located in Forum Hall -- a cold, 20-minute walk from the Paveletskaya metro station in south-central Moscow. After clearing two blocks of police and periodic sidewalk metal detectors -- inoperative, it seemed -- journalists worked in a computer-filled hall among plasma television screens with a live feed from the hotel.

The feed offered little to work with, however. After the transmission of an unofficial working breakfast at 8:15 a.m., the screens showed U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow and French Finance Minister Thierry Breton chatting amiably during the break.

At 10 a.m., Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin appeared on screen amid a flurry of camera flashes from a handful of on-site photographers, and the ministers took their seats for the long-awaited main event: an opening discussion of oil's role in the world economy.

"This is, of course, the theme that has generated the greatest interest all over the world," Kudrin said, before the transmission cut away to a shot of the hotel hallway, where a uniformed busboy was wheeling a cart of breakfast dishes.

A groan went up in the press center.

"I guess now we go for a smoke," one Russian journalist said to a colleague.

Several college-aged press center assistants said there had been "technical problems with the satellite" and suggested calling the hotel's front desk, before another assistant clarified that due to the G8's traditionally closed format, the cut in transmission had been planned.

The broadcast resumed during a break in the meetings to show the "G8 family photo," where the ministers posed with their colleagues from the European Union, World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The press center took on a distinctly postmodernist air as photographers snapped shots of the plasma screens, which in turn showed photographers in the hotel shooting the ministers.

Security at Forum Hall grew tighter -- in part accidentally -- as the ministers wrapped up their G8 discussions and headed to the Kremlin for a working lunch with President Vladimir Putin. Dozens of OMON riot police and regular police officers crowded into the Forum Hall cafeteria, seizing their last chance to grab lunch before the ministers arrived for concluding news conferences.

The heavily armed line wound around the hall, each officer clutching a meal ticket, as a press center administrator pleaded with a senior police officer to limit the meal-seekers to 15 at a time.

In an upstairs banquet hall, plastic-wrapped sandwiches and bottled water were laid out for journalists, but a stern guard at the door stopped several journalists who wanted to have a working lunch from taking sandwiches downstairs.

When asked whether he feared the sandwiches might be used as weapons, the guard shrugged and told one reporter, "You might use a sandwich as a weapon."

He did not elaborate, but cracked a smile.

As the ministers arrived to hold individual news conferences -- with the exception of Britain's Brown and Japanese Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, who left Moscow without putting their spin on the proceedings -- the mood varied widely from room to room.

Canada's Flaherty was wide-eyed and jovial at the end of his first official trip, while France's Breton took on the tone of a harassed schoolmaster as he reiterated thus-far futile calls for Russia to ratify the 1991 Energy Charter.

Kudrin soberly recounted the meeting's main conclusions, but turned almost giddy as he repeatedly recounted conversations with other ministers about last month's Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute.

When he told his fellow ministers that gas supplies had dropped to Europe because Ukraine continued to siphon off gas even after Gazprom increased supplies to compensate, Kudrin said "at least three ministers" had responded: "Why aren't you telling people about this? That's absolutely logical, fair and understandable. The whole world ought to know about this!"

Snow, whom Kudrin named as one of the three ministers, described the exchange somewhat differently.

"We had a discussion in which our Russian colleagues laid out for us their view of the situation," Snow told reporters. "We found that illuminating, but I am not an authority on these issues."

Summing up the relative success of the meeting, Kudrin put a twist on the Russian folk saying about always throwing out the first pancake in a batch.

"As they say in Russia, this was the first blin, but it didn't turn out lumpy. It was a real, well-cooked blin," he said.