The autocrat at the table
Heads of state: a user's guide
A SOCIAL engagement with an east European head of state is not something to engage in lightly. In some countries, you may find the top man willing to meet over a meal or a drink. But others are so hedged around with protocol that only long-standing and intimate friends can hope to get through the surrounding fortifications of aides, flaks, bodyguards and cronies.
And in some cases there may be little point in trying to do so. Sparkling conversation and stimulating views are not what leaps to mind when Hungary’s president, László Sólyom, is mentioned.
Visiting Lech Kaczynski of Poland is great fun if you have a good knowledge of Gdansk opposition politics in the early 1970s; conversation on other topics is more limited, and can be alarming. Slovakia’s president, Ivan Gasparovic, has interesting contrarian views on Serbia, but not much else.
Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine finds it hard to get up in the morning, so avoid any suggestion of a power breakfast, and notoriously wayward when it comes to timekeeping (your columnist once waited 11 hours). So accept lunch, but plan for dinner.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia is punctual, but has a queenly manner that many might find insufferable in a country ten (or one hundred) times bigger. With a bit of luck, you may get a few glimpses of the charming and brainy Canadian professor who lives under the carapace of protocol.
Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic, by contrast, is exactly the same whether you have known him for ten minutes or 20 years: abrasive, forceful, well-informed and magnificently dismissive of views other than his own. If you have a Nobel prize for economics, he may give your views a marginally more polite hearing. Otherwise, thicken your skin.
Janez Drnovsek of Slovenia, by contrast, is a dreamy, mystical fellow; he would seem more at home running an alternative bookshop, perhaps with a sideline in healing crystals and aromatic oils. A cup of herb tea and a light lentil salad will accompany your discussion of world peace and the healing properties of mountains.
At his dacha outside Moscow, Vladimir Putin of Russia hosts regular meetings for a charmed circle of well-disposed and well-connected outsiders. They are not exactly informal, but they do display his formidable self-confidence in dealing with any question you like to throw at him over a period of many hours; many western politicians would lack the stamina to do that. Even the most hardheaded visitors have been known to succumb to his highly professional persuasive talents.
Stop me if you've heard this one before
Transdniestria’s president, Igor Smirnov, should be described as “head of statelet”, not head of state: his breakaway region is not recognised by the outside world. But despite a peppery manner, and behind a cloud of smoke from his beloved Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, he has a surprisingly sharp sense of fun. Just try to stay off politics.
The ideal evening would probably start with President Traian Basescu of Romania (pictured, left) and a beer in one of the Bucharest bars that he likes to frequent. The former sea-captain’s salty humour is hard to resist: he must have run a happy ship. His views—mostly—are sensible: anti-corruption, pro-American. Next would come dinner with Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia. His public face is now, wisely, bland, but in private his views are as incisive and entertaining as ever. Then time for one of the late-night pow-wows for which Toomas Hendrik Ilves is famous. Estonia’s bow-tie clad head of state will still be in full flow as you stagger off for a few hours sleep, wishing you hadn't arranged a breakfast meeting for later that morning.