Putin’s RSVP to Chirac: ‘Non, merci’

International Herald Tribune
Judy Dempsey
November 30, 2006

RIGA, Latvia: President Jacques Chirac of France flew back to Paris on Wednesday afternoon, showing no sign of embarrassment over a diplomatic tempest he created in this Baltic republic.

France reluctantly admitted on Tuesday that Chirac had in fact invited President Vladimir Putin of Russia to a private 74th birthday dinner in Riga. But Putin, it turned could not attend for “scheduling” reasons.

Putin had known about the dinner invitation for many days, diplomats said. Indeed, Chirac’s office had last week telephoned the German Chancellery to inform Angela Merkel about the event.

According to German officials, the chancellery was astonished at the invitation – effectively a summit within a summit that would upstage NATO, upstage Latvia – the first former Soviet satellite to host a NATO summit – and upstage the participants.

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Chirac apparently proceeded with his plans without keeping his Latvian counterpart, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, informed.

When Vike-Freiberga got wind of the invitation, according to diplomats from several NATO countries, she considered refusing a visa to Putin.

She had twice been refused a visa to Russia in recent years.

But Putin owed her a favor. During the lavish 60th anniversary events to celebrate the end of World War II that Putin hosted in Moscow in May 2005, Vike-Freiberga broke ranks with the other Baltic states to attend.

Vike-Freiberga decided to send a clear message to Putin, diplomats said. By all means visit Latvia, but first pay an official call to the president’s office.

Once Moscow had shared this information with Paris, Chirac’s office said the dinner would also include Vike- Freiberga.

As Tuesday wore on, some delegations were making contingency plans to avoid the dinner in case Chirac further expanded the guest list.

Merkel made it clear to her aides that she did not want to attend the dinner.

By Tuesday evening, the Russians had received enough messages from European diplomats voicing their displeasure about the dinner that they decided to reconsider.

As it turned out, Putin did not need much persuading to revise his plans. His office said he could not fit it into his schedule.