Saturday, June 30, 2012

Geneva June 30

Now at the Palace of Nations in Geneva. Got some sleep last night..not enough, but it will have to do.

Opening the curtains revealed a beautiful clear day outside, and a view straight across to the mountains. It is hot (for Geneva) here..upper 80s. There were some very 60's Swiss apartment houses opposite my room (see below), each with a snazzy rooftop pool and garden, complete with trees. As I looked out the window, a woman was strolling back from her swim -- completely naked. Switzerland.

Had a quick breakfast at the hotel, with a brief James Bond moment as the two guys at the table next to me discussed Syria. Don't know who they were but one guy was European and the other Arab, and the Arab kept saying "well if this doesn't work we can do it on the ground. That is possible for us." Intrigue! Or maybe just wishful thinking.

Then the 30 second motorcade to UN HQ, where we are parked in a press room. The waiting has started -- and will likely last most of the day. Clinton and the rest have closed door sessions, a lunch, and more closed door sessions. So it is all going to be hearsay until Annan comes out at the end and says his bit, followed by a brief press conference with Clinton.

I find it hard to imagine after yesterday's unproductive meeting with Lavrov that they are going to get any sort of deal that actually pushes things along. I bet they are more likely just to call for more talks and call it a draw, which of course will be a disaster for the Syrians. But we'll see.

If everything stays on schedule (which it never does) we may get home by about 8 or 9 in the evening DC time.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Riga-St Petersburg, June 28-29

We had a busy day yesterday, flying from Helsinki to Latvia to St. Petersburg. I'm going to start with St Petersburg because it has really knocked my socks off -- what a city! The canals, the palaces, the golden church spires...all absolutely beautiful.

We arrived last evening, blazing sun at 7 p.m. Driving from the airport to the center of the city, we paused at their World War II memorial where Clinton laid another wreath. It was a pretty impressive structure - Socialist realist sculptures, and a subterranean chamber lit by electric lanterns, one for each month day of the Siege of Leningrad. They had some sort of wailing music in the background and the whole thing was a bit spooky.

We weren't really paying attention, however, because on landing the camera crew had asked Clinton for her reaction to the Supreme Court decision upholding Obama's health care law, and she had (much against expectations) answered. We all wanted the quote but the camera crew was busy filming Clinton inside the memorial. There was a lot of blackberrying back and forth and finally we got hold of the quote, which wasn't particularly interesting. But the ruling was BIG news so everybody got on their phones to send it back to Washington.

Then it was back on the bus and into the center of town, where we were staying in the perfect location right in the heart of things. The hotel, the Astoria, is one of the old ones in St. Petersburg but has been taken over by an international luxury chain (name: Rocco Forte, which is great in itself). The revamp has left a lot of the original detail, but boosted the price tag -- to $1000 per night. Crazy but that is what the market will bear. I wouldn't want to pay it myself, but I am very glad we stayed here because you really can walk to anything. The golden domed St. Isaac Cathedral is right across the street, and the onion domed Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, is a few blocks away.

I had to work for about an hour and a half after we arrived, and the rest of the folks went out with Michele K from NPR who has a local artist friend here. They kindly left me a map which I took and presented to a taxi driver, and we set off. It feels very strange to be in a city where you can't read the signs, and can't speak a word of the language. So riding in the taxi felt like shooting into space..I wasn't sure where we were going, and wasn't sure the taxi driver knew either. As we kept driving I started wondering..could they really have walked THIS far? And I had no idea of how to get back. We finally got to the restaurant and I made the taxi wait while I called Michele -- thinking that if he drove off I would never find my way back to the hotel. I was in the right spot, and within a few minutes the rest of the folks came walking up. We had originally planned on going to a Ukrainian restaurant but ended up going to a Georgian one next door. Fantastic food -- a red bean and lentil stew, braized kebabs, and crazy cheese bread with egg cooked into the top. Doesn't sound delicious but it definitely was. I was starving which helped.

Today we had a mostly free day. Clinton's schedule didn't start until 4:30 p.m., which was great for us but frustrating for her -- she had come to meet the Russian foreign minister but he kept her waiting all day. Their differences on Syria come on top of lots of other tensions, and the feeling is that the relationship is not going in the right direction. But we had some free time. I did an interview with the consul general about how Clinton's new LGBT rights policy is translated into policy in a place like Russia, which is so hostile to gay rights, and then went out to find some of the other guys to walk around the city. It really is a beautiful place, and I was able to catch the exteriors (at least) of some of the major sights: the Hermitage Museum (pictured at the top), the Admirality, the Fortress of Peter and Paul...what a collection of buildings. The city is punctuated with nice touches, like the fence around one of its parks. A couple of people who were here in earlier days say it has really cleaned up, and it feels like a bright, tourist town. I want to come back (but I don't want to spend $1000/night for a hotel!)

We had a good lunch at a sort of fancy restaurant overlooking the Ivan Cathedral (and located on the top of the Gazprom Headquarters), and then went back to the hotel to wait "movement" with Clinton. It has been a blur since then: we followed her out to the Catherine Palace, a totally over the top place in the Tsarskoe Seloe summer retreat of the Russian Imperial Family. The famous "Amber Room", destroyed by the Germans, has been rebuilt with German funding. Its strange to see a room entirely tiled in amber....not pretty, but impressive. The rest of the place was sort of Vegas meets Versailles...too much to describe here. She gave a speech to a women's group, then back to the city for her meeting with Lavrov.

The meeting went long -- we went and had another Georgian feast at a restaurant around the corner -- and then back to the plane at about 11 p.m. A State Department person gave us a few quotes on Syria while the plane was taxiing: there are still major "difficulties and differences" in the U.S. and Russian positions, one day befor the Geneva meeting where they are supposed to work everything out. Not promising. We all dialed frantically to get those quotes to our bureaux before the plane took off..and then we were in the air again.


I'm in Geneva now. It is 3 a.m. and we are waiting for our bags to be delivered. We start again tomorrow around 9, when Clinton heads to the UN building for the Syria meeting. It will be another day of waiting, then frantic activity (did they get a deal or not? and what next?) and then back on the plane for the 9 hour trip back to DC where it is something like 104 degrees today and will be just as hot tomorrow. Not looking forward to that, but we have had a few days in the cool Baltic and it has been beautiful. I don't have the time or energy to talk about our few hours in Latvia before we go to Russia. Looked sort of cute, in a Pied Piper way. Maybe I can fill that in later. But now I have to get my bag and go to bed.

I'll close with a picture of the Leningrad Siege Memorial -- a relic of Soviet times, but impressive nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Helsinki June 27

I am looking out of the window at a blue sky, streaked with sunswept clouds. It is 10 p.m. in Helsinki, and the "White Nights" phenomenon truly is weird.

We've had a good, if brief visit. We flew out of DC yesterday and, rare for a Clinton trip, had a daylight trip to Europe. It took us back over Greenland and there were fantastic views of the rocky, snow-filled emptiness. We arrived in Helsinki at about 2 a.m. their time -- sunset -- and drove straight to the hotel.

There doesn't seem to be much point to Clinton's Finland visit, except that she has promised to visit them twice before and never made it, and didn't make it again when she visited the other Nordic countries earlier this month. But, as she says, they are "good allies" and deserve a pat on the back, so here we are.

Despite the late bedtime, I was up early. Even though they give you "black out curtains" for the summer, it was already bright by 4 a.m. and by 6 it just felt like time to get up. We left the hotel at around 8:30 and she had a rapid fire round of visits with the president (whose official residence is a fantastic, James Bond like modern structure on the end of a peninsula), the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.

We've known all along that this trip might end up in Geneva, where Kofi Annan is trying to pull together a "contact group" including Russia and China, to talk on Saturday about the next steps on Syria. The United States has been lukewarm, mostly they say because they are not convinced that Russia (and Iran, which they don't think should even be invited) are serious about getting Assad out. But Annan has been pushing hard and it by this morning it looked like Clinton might be ready to say she would go.

She was -- almost -- but the way protocol works on these things is she couldn't say she was going until Annan had officially announced the meeting on Saturday, which hadn't happened yet by the time she gave her press conference in Helsinki. So she had to signalt that she was going without actually saying it...making for a fairly circuitous press conference. But we will be there on Saturday, after stops in Latvia (tomorrow) and St. Petersburg (on Friday) where she is due to have another powwow with the Russian foreign minister. Our sense is that the real gap between Moscow and Washington on what do about Syria really hasn't narrowed much -- so you wonder what another international conference about it will achieve. But nobody wants to be seen doing nothing, so they are all going. It should be interesting.

After the press conference we went to the Marimekko Headquarters. This was one thing I really wanted to see, but in the end I couldn't go in -- I was still writing up the stuff from Clinton's press conference and had to stay in the bus to get it filed to London. The outside of the HQ was not terribly impressive but people said the inside (and the store) were really good. I'm sorry to have missed it.

After that, another embassy meet'and'greet and then we all went to a restaurant in downtown Helsinki for a drink to celebrate the 30th birthday of one of Clinton's staffers. It was a great hour or two -- Clinton was relaxed, people were joking, and it all felt very comfortable. You can tell Clinton and her staff all feel that they are heading into the home stretch and they are loosening up a little. Also there was champagne. It was 6 p.m. in Helsinki but only 11 a.m. in DC. Oh well, tasted good nonetheless.

While we had been having the get together, there was only one other table occupied at the far end of the restaurant. We weren't sure who they were, or why nobody else was being allowed to sit down. It turns out they were "KENT", a very famous (we were told) Swedish boy band. As we got up to leave they all came over to the table and serenaded Clinton and the staffer. It was very cute, and Clinton thought it was hilarious.

Clinton and a few people left, and the rest of us went to another restaurant for dinner. It was on the waterfront and really gave a lovely view of Helsinki. The whole place feels like the Pacific Northwest -- ferries, small, pine covered islands, people outside. And the light...still bright outside long past 8 p.m. It is disorienting and I can't imagine what the winter, with 20 hours of darkness every day, is like. Now I am going to pack up and drag my bag to the drop off point so that I don't have to get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning, then try to get to sleep so I'll be awake for tomorrow's day trip to Riga.