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Russia: Putin In Britain For First State Visit By Russian Leader In 130 Years

  • Kathleen Moore

Russian President Vladimir Putin begins a trip to Britain today. It's the first state visit by a Russian leader in nearly 130 years. That means Putin and his wife will be treated to a lot of pomp and splendor. They'll stay at Buckingham Palace, take a ride in a royal carriage, and be toasted at a state banquet. But what is the real significance of the visit?

Prague, 24 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "[British Prime Minister] Tony Blair and I have a very good and trusting contact. His country is indeed one of our priority partners. It is one of the biggest European economies. Great Britain's political activity is very important in Europe and worldwide," said Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, speaking ahead of a visit to Britain, which begins today. The trip is being billed as another attempt to heal divisions over the war in Iraq, which Russia opposed.

But forget fence-mending and bilateral relations. It's the pomp and splendor of Putin's state visit that should get the flashbulbs popping.

As soon as Putin and his wife fly in today, they'll be whisked off with the queen and her husband on a royal carriage procession through London.

They'll stay at Buckingham Palace, the home of the queen, and be toasted at a state banquet in their honor there tonight. They'll be shown around Westminster Abbey, where Britain's kings and queens are buried, and flown to Edinburgh to see some Scottish historical sites.

Putin's four-day stay will be interspersed with meetings, notably with Blair. And he may get sick of the sound of the Russian and British national anthems -- he'll hear them at least five times.

Political commentator Bruce Anderson says state visits are a mark of favor by the British government. "State visits take a lot of organizing," Anderson says. "They're planned usually two or three years in advance. Various people, especially foreign monarchs, will always get one state visit during their lifetime, but otherwise, Buckingham Palace talks quite closely to Number 10 Downing Street, and undoubtedly Tony Blair would have said, 'If her majesty felt like inviting President Putin, that would be a thoroughly good thing for Anglo-Russian relations.' It's also a magnificent occasion. I think anyone is bound to be impressed by the full grandeur of a state visit. It's something we British do very well -- ceremony and pageantry."

Usually, there are only two state visits a year. Past guests have included Iraq's King Faisal in the 1950s and King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in 1971.

The queen sends the invitations, but it's not her choice of guests -- that's up to the prime minister and the Foreign Office. So it's not her fault that a couple of embarrassing individuals were invited to London during the 1970s: dictators Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu.

"Lord Carrington, who was foreign secretary [shortly after] the Ceausescu visit, used to refer to him in private as President Pull-Your-Fingernails-Out, and there was a feeling afterwards that it had been a mistake to invite President Pull-Your-Fingernails-Out and his ghastly wife to London and give them that ceremony, but that was a miscalculation in retrospect. At the time, it seemed perhaps a sensible political move," Anderson says.

Curiously, no U.S. president has ever been on a full state visit to Britain.

Ronald Reagan came the closest in 1982. He addressed both houses of parliament and met the queen. But a Buckingham Palace spokesman explains that Reagan didn't get the carriage ride, so it didn't quite qualify.

Anderson suggests British and American leaders are in such close contact anyway that there's been no need for a state visit. Or perhaps, he suggests, there's a republican reluctance to indulge in the full pageantry of their old colonial power.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman says there's a more prosaic reason: security concerns preclude U.S. presidents from riding in an open carriage.

Which only raises a more intriguing question: what will U.S. President George W. Bush do if, as a British newspaper recently reported, he becomes later this year the first U.S. president to be invited to Britain on a state visit?