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.