It was past midnight and we were relaxing in the hotel bar. The mood was jovial, the requisite stories were filed, and the Georgian wine was flowing.
My colleague from the Georgian Service shot up straight in his chair, transfixed by a group of dark-suited men. "Look, it's Lavrov!"
Sure it was. And wasn't that Putin and Dmitry Medvedev over by reception?
But it wasn't the Mukuzani talking. Sure enough, when the crowds parted, we got an unmistakable view of Russia's foreign minister checking into our utterly nondescript Bucharest hotel.
By the time we had exchanged our wine glasses for recorders, he was gone. Serves us right for drinking, we said, pouring a fresh round.
So why was the foreign minister of the largest country on earth staying in a hotel that -- while acceptable for the nondemanding and powerless among us -- really had nothing special on its side? Shouldn't he be staying at the Russian ambassador's residence? No way, said my Russian colleague -- that would be reserved for Putin and his entourage.
Perhaps Sergei Lavrov had been forced to make a last-minute booking. Perhaps this was the only available hotel. Or perhaps the foreign service isn't as glamorous as one had imagined.
I noticed a member of Lavrov's entourage walking through the lobby carrying a large Russian tricolor. Someone joked we'd wake in the morning to find it wedged between the EU and NATO flags hanging in the hotel lobby.
We had been wondering all week whether Putin would actually show up in Bucharest. Conventional wisdom was that he would boycott in protest if Georgia and Ukraine were given Membership Action Plans. But they didn't, and by the evening of April 3, Putin was finally in town.
From then on, the tantalizing question was what the mercurial Kremlin leader was going to say on April 4, the summit's final day. It would be one of Putin's last chances as president to address the West directly. Many of us expected him to "pull another Munich" -- referring to Putin's bellicose anti-Western speech in Germany last year.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer evidently had the same idea. Last week, he warned Putin against using "unhelpful rhetoric" in Bucharest. But when the NATO chief emerged from the April 4 NATO-Russia Council (which was closed to the media), he seemed appeased: evidently the Russian president had been on his best behavior.
"I am not complaining about unhelpful rhetoric [today]," de Hoop Scheffer said in response to a question about whether Putin was minding his manners at the summit. "You can expect me to be critical about unhelpful rhetoric when it occurs, but it didn't happen today."
So were there to be no Munich-style antics in Bucharest? The opportunity arose yet again when a scheduled Lavrov press conference -- after eternal delays -- suddenly evolved into a Putin event.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov strolled across the stage. The assorted journalists sat up a little straighter. Minutes later, the president swaggered out, to "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd. Putin smirked as he took the podium. Show time!
But it was pretty clear from the get-go that there would be no fire-breathing Munich sequels in the Romanian capital. Putin, unsurprisingly, reiterated Russia's opposition to NATO expansion and missile defense. He warned that expanding NATO farther to Russia's borders would be treated as a "direct threat." He tried to ridicule NATO's claims to being an alliance of democratic countries.
But from where I sat, his heart didn't seem to be in it. The cadence, tempo, and intonation were all classic Putin -- but there was no fire in the belly. With little over a month left in his presidency, and on what looks like his last foreign trip, Putin seemed like he wanted to go out on a more or less positive note -- or, at least, on a not-too-negative one.
Putin touted an agreement with NATO to allow for the transport of nonlethal equipment through Russia to Afghanistan. He repeatedly referred to the United States and other NATO members as "partners" with whom he wanted "constructive" relations. "Let's live as friends and have an honest dialogue," he said at one point. He assured everybody that "nobody is interested" in a new Cold War.
My Ukrainian colleague was passed over at question time, but she had a good one ready. If Putin was so intent on good relations with NATO, she wondered, then why didn't he want more countries in NATO? That way, he could have good relations with more countries.
A damn good question. I would have loved to hear Putin's answer.
Twelve hours. Two announcements. One nerve-wracking political roller coaster ride for Georgia and Ukraine.
Just before midnight on April 2, Kyiv and Tbilisi got the disappointing news from NATO officials that they would not get their coveted Membership Action Plans (MAP) in Bucharest. My colleagues from RFE/RL's Georgian and Ukrainian services bravely tried to hide their funk on the long bus ride from the conference venue to our hotel after watching NATO spokesman James Appathurai's remarks to that effect at a late-night press conference.
And even as he said that a MAP was unlikely, Appathurai revealed that the allies still needed to agree on "language" regarding the Georgian and Ukrainian bids. What could that mean? Was an alternative offer -- a kind of MAP lite, a map to a MAP -- in the works?
But then again, I had to agree with my Georgian and Ukrainian colleagues -- it was hard to imagine anything short of a full-fledged MAP that wouldn't look like a rejection. NATO appeared to have caved in the face of Russian pressure.
By lunchtime on April 3, everything had changed.
Rumors had been swirling through the cavernous corridors and vast halls of Bucharest's Palace of Parliament all morning that something was in the works.
By the time NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer addressed the media in the early afternoon (hours later than scheduled), it appeared that Georgia and Ukraine would get more than they hoped for.
There would be no MAP at this time, that was true. But there would be what sounded like a pretty firm commitment of eventual membership. Not a firm commitment for MAPs -- but actual membership. All the key players who famously opposed the MAP this time around were on board, including Germany and France.
Moreover, NATO foreign ministers have been instructed to assess Kyiv and Tbilisi's progress in December 2008 and have authority to issue formal MAPs as early as then -- provided the progress was sufficient. It would all be in an official protocol by the evening, we were told.
The mood in the Georgian and Ukrainian delegations pivoted on a dime, from bitter disappointment to unexpected elation. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said Ukraine had "broken the sound barrier." Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili called the announcement a "geopolitical coup."
One top Georgian official, speaking on background, told my colleagues from RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the decision was even better than getting a MAP. They would be admitted to NATO after all. The only question was when.
One can't help but wonder whether this was what was supposed to happen all along. Given German and French objections, few expected Georgia and Ukraine to get MAPs here in Bucharest. I expected them to come no sooner than at NATO's 60th anniversary summit next year.
But U.S. President George W. Bush's recent statements, climaxing with his speech in Bucharest on April 1, raised expectations to a degree that the NATO allies were not prepared for. One Polish journalist told me that the general sense -- even among the staunchly pro-American Poles -- was that Washington came on much too strong and ended up harming Georgia and Ukraine's cases.
Perhaps. But given how it all turned out, perhaps not. Georgia and Ukraine, after all, seem to have gotten more than they expected. Would this have happened without the U.S. push?
Now all eyes are on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to attend a session of the NATO-Russia Council on April 4.
It was widely assumed that Putin would not show up if the MAPs were issued -- just as he spurned the 2002 summit in Prague to protest Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia receiving invitations to join the Western alliance.
MAPs were not issued today, but Putin cannot be happy with how things turned out. Even as journalists elsewhere adjusted to a rosier forecast for Tbilisi and Kyiv, the message blaring from Russia's ORT remained stubbornly downcast: "NATO has closed the door on Ukraine and Georgia."
As I wrote this diary, one of my colleagues from RFE/RL's Russian Service burst into my office. "Are you watching the video feed from the airport?" she asked. It appeared that an official Russian plane had landed, but appeared to be turning around on the runway.
Was it Putin's plane? If so, was he going to take off and fly back to Moscow in protest? I couldn't help but recall Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov turning his Washington-bound plane around in mid-flight over the Atlantic Ocean in March 1999 to protest NATO's decision to use force against Serbia over Kosovo.
As it turned out, it wasn't Putin's plane quibbling on the runway, but an advance team from the Kremlin, and it stayed firmly on the ground. It appears Putin will show up after all. What will he say when he gets here? Watch this space.
The press center was silent as U.S. President George W. Bush delivered a morning address on April 2 from the Palace of the Deposit and Savings Bank. The president was visible on the live television feed, but it was hard to understand what he was saying. The sound wasn't working.
Security guards are ubiquitous. Two were stalking the floor of my hotel, occupied mainly, I thought, by fairly nonthreatening journalists. Their uniforms were startlingly reminiscent of Soviet-era train conductors. Will they offer me tea? I wondered.
Guards are also a constant presence in the media center, located in the cavernous, 3,000-room Parliament Palace. I keep getting lost. Every room looks the same.
As I was trying to find our studio, I wandered into a stairwell to call my colleagues. I noticed one of these vigilant uniformed men leaning over me. “Can I help you?” I asked. “No,” he retorted. “Can I help you?”
A funny joke is making the rounds among Georgian journalists. Since Greece is blocking Macedonia’s NATO bid over its name, maybe Georgia will run into the same problem. The U.S. state of Georgia, as part of the United States, has been part of NATO since 1949, after all. Will Washington block Tbilisi’s bid over this?
Matthew Bryza, a State Department official responsible, in part, for the South Caucasus, spoke to a group of Georgian journalists. The one question in those quarters, of course, is whether Tbilisi will be offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) in Bucharest.
Bryza spoke moments after a fiery speech by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who hotly disputed the wisdom of offering Georgia a MAP. Bryza was just as dismissive of Lavrov's concerns."Foreign Minister Lavrov is entitled to his own opinion and so is the Russian Federation," Bryza said. "But Russia is not a member of NATO and Russia has absolutely no possibility, no right to veto the membership or even the Membership Action Plan of any candidate. Georgia is a European country. Georgia has fulfilled the requirements to become a recipient of the Membership Action Plan, so Russia should have no impact at all on that decision, which has to be taken by the members of the alliance."
The first sign of trouble came on April 1, April Fool's Day, at the airport.
One day before hundreds of heads of state, government officials, and NATO authorities were due to land, there was not a single taxi in evidence at Henri Coanda International Airport. Nor, we were told, would there be any.
Finally, a helpful young man at a NATO information kiosk told me and my colleagues to take a special bus to the accreditation center, get credentialed, and then take another bus to the hotel. That sounded like a good plan -- at least until we got to the accreditation center.
After passing through a chaotic security gauntlet and metal detector, we lined up to get our media credentials. My colleagues from the Ukrainian and Russian services sailed through. I, meanwhile, was told there were problems.
What problems? How long would it take? I couldn’t get a straight answer. Brussels was working on it. Three hours later, I was told that everything was okay with my accreditation, but that the printer that produced the press badges was now broken.
Yes, that's one printer -- in the singular. It had been sent out to another building for repair. How long would that take? Maybe five minutes, maybe hours. There was no way to know for sure.
I settled in and acquainted myself with colleagues in the same unhappy boat -- a woman from the BBC, a man from Voice of America, a Swede, a Dane, and a woman from U.S. National Public Radio.
At least we were in good company. I later found out from my colleague in the Ukrainian Service that two members of President Viktor Yushchenko's own press corps had likewise been denied accreditation.
At 7 p.m., I finally had my prized press badge -- but the media center was closed. So much for filing an early dispatch. I found a bus to my hotel and then spent 30 minutes on the street, waiting for a massive motorcade to crawl its way through the city.
A phalanx of Romanian police officers kept us glued in our places. "Stay here! Stay here!" they shouted. Finally, one annoyed reporter shouted back: "We are here! We are here!"
NATO summit coverage
LOTS TO TALK ABOUT: The agenda of this week's NATO summit in the Romanian capital has included key questions about relations with the Balkans, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Russia. Entering the event, there was risk of gridlock, as Georgia and Ukraine sought "Membership Action Plans" over strident objections from Russia. Meanwhile, Balkan aspirants Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia already had their MAPs but faced varying degrees of resistance to their membership from inside the alliance. Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (pictured above) and NATO leaders were also grappling with the alliance's biggest current challenge and putative "top priority," its Afghan mission. Relations with Russia provided further drama as Washington pressed ahead with its effort to build a missile-defense system in Europe.