With gifts all round, Medvedev arrives on world stage

For Europe’s top officials, there was a pleasant surprise on Friday. Arriving at their summit hotel, deep in the noiseless Siberian forest, EU bureaucrats found a signed gift from their host, Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia’s new president had given the EU’s top brass a book of his amateur photographs. The snaps included Italian cherubs, a rowing boat bobbing on a dappled turquoise lake, ducks, and several landscapes.
“He’s got a cultural and aesthetic side,” one impressed EU official remarked, adding: “He’s clearly got a sense of humour. He’s a nice, regular guy. He’s rather impressive.”

Friday marked Medvedev’s major international debut. Seven weeks after taking over from Vladimir Putin, Medvedev hosted talks between the EU and Russia on a new partnership and cooperation agreement.

The contrast between the new man in the Kremlin and “his judo-loving predecessor”, as one EU official put it, was overwhelming. It also went some way towards answering the question: who is Medvedev? Putin used summits to demonstrate his gift for sardonic repartee. Often, he went further—memorably clobbering the United States during an infamous speech in Munich last year. He also regularly hinted that Russia might nuke Europe.

Medvedev, by contrast, was all smiles on Friday—chatting in the Siberian sunshine with European commission president, José Manuel Barroso. He even had a friendly word for Peter Mandelson, the EU’s trade commissioner.

“I’m not going to make any comparisons,” Barroso said, after being asked if he preferred dealing with Medvedev, at a press conference after the talks, which formally opened negotiations on a new EU-Russia deal.

Barroso, however, paid warm tribute to the Kremlin’s youthful 42-year-old boss. His talks with Medvedev had taken place in an “open, relaxed and very constructive atmosphere”, Barroso said, telling Russia’s president fondly: “I just wanted you to know that.”

Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy representative, was similarly gushing. “We have found a wavelength,” Solana said, recalling his happy dinner with Medvedev on Thursday night, shortly before Spain beat Russia 3-0 in their Euro 2008 semifinal.

It is too early to say whether Medvedev means a fresh start to Russia’s frequently troubled relations with the EU. So far there isn’t much evidence to suggest that the Medvedev era is substantively different from the Putin one. On Friday Medvevev launched a Putin-like attack on Estonia and Lithuania, accusing them of discriminating against Russian speakers.

“Victory over fascism is our common heritage. Attempts to desecrate the memory of those who fought for freedom are absolutely unacceptable,” Medvedev warned.

Putin is still around, of course. Russia’s new prime minister may not actually have attended Friday’s summit, held in the western Siberian oil town of Khanty-Mansiisk, 2 400km east of Moscow, but he hovered over the proceedings like a mocking ghost. “Putin had a sense of humour but only when he was making the jokes,” one EU official said, recalling previous bad-natured EU-Russia meetings, including last year’s one in the Russian city of Samara. “His humour was slightly more cynical, slightly more cruel [than Medvedev’s].”

Friday’s negotiations were designed to draw up a new wide-ranging and legally binding partnership deal between the EU and Russia.

Both sides have so far failed to agree on the format of the negotiations—with Russia favouring a concise pact. The EU wants a more comprehensive deal, spelling out details in key “sectoral” areas including energy and justice. Still, with Medvedev at the helm they might just get there.

From judo to yoga
Hobbies: Putin is a judo black belt. He has also co-written a book on the sport. Medvedev practises yoga and is a keen amateur photographer.

Previous career: Putin served in the 1980s as a KGB colonel in communist East Germany. He later became head of the FSB, Russia’s post-KGB spy agency. Medvedev worked in the 1990s as a lawyer before joining Putin’s staff.

Music: Putin allegedly likes patriotic songs and ballads. Medvedev is a big fan of British rockers Deep Purple.

Dress: Putin and Medvedev have similar modish tastes. Presidential dress code is business suits for the Kremlin and black polo neck jumpers and leather jackets for casual wear. - guardian.co.uk

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