A weekend of wide-ranging summits got off to a mix-and-mingle start here Friday with social opportunities for post-Iraq fence-mending and a call by leaders of former Soviet states for closer ties to Europe.
Presidents and heads of state from more than 40 countries are expected here for the main events today, and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin took those who had already arrived for sightseeing, a concert and a glittering late-evening banquet.
The dignitaries, many with their spouses, visited historic St. Isaac’s Cathedral, where they were greeted by religious leaders and then, with choral music in the background, stood socializing as if at an elite cocktail party. Putin greeted British Prime Minister Tony Blair with hugs and handshakes, and later the Russian leader stood chatting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
At an evening concert in the opulent Mariinsky theater, Blair and French President Jacques Chirac -- who were bitterly divided this year over a war in Iraq -- were seated next to each other and could be seen cheerfully conversing before the performance.
At the banquet, Chirac, Hu and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi were seated next to one another in places of honor close to Putin. Putin, who often wears a dour expression but was this night looking happy, led them in a toast.
When all the tables were occupied, Putin addressed his guests, thanked them for coming as the city celebrates its 300th birthday, and played off one of the sub-themes of the celebrations: that St. Petersburg, as Russia’s historic “Window on Europe,” is a fitting symbol of the country’s growing friendship with the West.
“Over three centuries, the people who live here have developed a special personality of their own -- a personality that is open and capable of changes, that is free and at the same time steadfast in all ordeals,” Putin said. “Today, when we celebrate the city’s anniversary, we first and foremost talk about and remember those who built and created it, those who created these cultural masterpieces and asserted moral values, those who keep the standards of these traditions high and courageously continue to blaze the trail today.”
President Bush, who flew to Poland on Friday for a series of events this morning in the Krakow area, was due to arrive here later today to join the festivities. He will meet with Putin on Sunday .
A Russia-European Union summit is to be held today, and festivities will continue tonight.
In the main political meeting Friday, leaders of the 12-member grouping of former Soviet republics known as the Commonwealth of Independent States met on a luxury ocean liner anchored in the Neva River here.
Putin, in opening that summit, noted that many of the CIS leaders have ties to St. Petersburg from Soviet times.
“Some people studied here, others have friends, others visit St. Petersburg’s museums and theaters with pleasure,” Putin said. “In general, it is some sort of a unifying element for all of us.”
The organization will push for “integration into Europe on fair, undiscriminating lines,” Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma, the current CIS chairman, told reporters.
During a stop in Poland on Friday on his way to St. Petersburg, Blair touched on one of the underlying themes of the meetings: patching up relations between Europe and the United States after the divisions over Iraq. France, Germany and Russia voiced fierce opposition to plans for the U.S.-led war, and Washington was particularly angered by the lack of support from Paris and Berlin.
“Where in Europe there is disagreement with the United States, we should manage that disagreement carefully, as between allies, and not let it explode into a diplomatic dogfight,” Blair said during his stopover in Warsaw, choosing words that reflect his desire to help bridge transatlantic differences. “The United States, in turn, can recognize that the European dilemma is that of wanting to be America’s partner, not its servant.”
The Russia-EU summit is being conducted under extraordinarily tight security, including a requirement that reporters who might come into proximity with the leaders fill out a form confirming that they don’t feel sick and haven’t recently visited a SARS-affected area. The Chinese Foreign Ministry earlier announced that Hu and his entourage went through special isolation procedures in recent weeks to ensure that none of them carry the virus, which has hit Beijing with particular severity.
The combination of tight security, the relative difficulty of obtaining Russian tourist visas at any time and the long distances have prevented the type of anti-globalization protests that have targeted many other major international gatherings in recent years.
But many of the leaders gathering here will travel this weekend to the French resort of Evian, not far from Geneva -- where protesters against capitalism, the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq and the alleged unfairness of international trade have already begun gathering, with about 2,000 marching in that city Friday.
A variety of world problems will be addressed at the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Evian. The leaders of several other countries, including Hu, have also been invited to the gathering.