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Reporter's Notebook: Battle Of The Flags In Oslo

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks at a business seminar. The Russian flag -- rather than the Freedom Forum banner -- is taking center stage in Oslo.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks at a business seminar. The Russian flag -- rather than the Freedom Forum banner -- is taking center stage in Oslo.
OSLO ­-- Vladimir Bukovsky spent nearly a dozen years in a Soviet prison camp. So being forced to sit at the sidewalk cafe outside his Oslo hotel by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's security detail was but the latest indignity, however slight, that the former political dissident has had to bear at the hands of the Russian government.

"It just gives you a taste of it," he said in between cigarettes and sips of coffee as dozens of Russian security guards and machine-gun toting Norwegian policemen milled outside the door of the Grand Hotel, one of Oslo's finest lodging establishments and the place where international dignitaries and Nobel Peace Prize recipients usually stay when they're in town. "He's just a puppet," Bukovsky muttered.

Bukovsky came to the Norwegian capital this week for the second annual Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering of over a hundred dissidents, politicians, activists, academics, and journalists. They all happen to be sharing the same hotel as Medvedev's entourage, which is occupying the seventh floor and is here for the first state visit by a Russian leader in over a decade.

Medvedev has been focused on resolving a nearly four-decade maritime border dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Circle, and late on April 27, the two countries announced they had finally struck a deal. But the attendees at the Freedom Forum believe that the nominal Russian leader's visit to this city -- indelibly known for its commitment to human rights -- should raise issues more important than those relating to fish and ice.

The conference boasts some of the Kremlin's harshest critics. In addition to Bukovsky, also in attendance are Russian opposition figure and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and Lidia Yusupova, leader of the Moscow-based group Memorial, which documents Russian human rights abuses in the North Caucasus.

Worlds Collide

On the face of it, the presence of the Russian president and a major international human rights conference in the same city -- and in the same hotel, no less --­ is just a coincidence. The Freedom Forum began preparations in May 2009, immediately after the conclusion of its inaugural conference, and the Russian state visit was announced on April 19.

"There was inadequate information on the part of the Russian Embassy in Oslo," Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, said matter-of-factly, but with a sly smile. Others at the conference suggested that someone, somewhere in the vast bureaucracy of the Russian government would soon be fired for not planning the state visit just a few days before or after the forum, never mind booking the Russian president in the same hotel as so many of his most vocal detractors.

Over the past two days, conference attendees -­- ranging from a Ugandan gay rights activist to a modern-day abolitionist to a former prisoner of the East German secret police --­ have hustled back and forth from the Grand Hotel to the Christiana Theater across the main square, where most of the forum's program is taking place. They're doing so under the watchful glare of countless grim-looking Russian security guards who man the stairwells 24 hours a day and occasionally shut down the lobby to make way for Medvedev.

The organizers of the Freedom Forum have made no hesitation to capitalize on what others might see as just an ironic happenstance. On the morning of April 26, forum founder Thor Halvorssen issued a press release challenging Medvedev to meet the dissidents in the lobby of the Grand Hotel "to discuss the troubling human rights record of Russia and that of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin."

At a press conference introducing some of the forum's speakers, Halvorssen said: "We know [Medvedev] is very busy. We know that he has a million-man army, a nuclear arsenal, and 300 bodyguards in this hotel. All we have is e-mail and fax machines."

By the next evening, however, no such confrontation had occurred.

Though both the Freedom Forum and the Russian delegation are official guests of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, some conference attendees detect a bit of bias in their host. Especially galling to many participants was a last-minute decision by the Norwegian government to take down the conference's blue banners decorating the lampposts along Karl Johans Gate --­ the main street in Oslo leading from the rail station to the Royal Palace -­- and replace them with the flags of the Russian Federation.

Yusupova of Memorial considers the switch a "humiliation" and says that even though festooning the city with Russian flags may be considered an act of diplomatic "etiquette," it nonetheless "expressed [the Norwegian government's] attitude towards human rights."

No Outright Confrontation

Garry Kasparov told me that Medvedev may have a difficult time in Oslo because "there are no riot police like in Moscow to prevent him from being ideologically harassed."

While a small demonstration highlighting human rights issues in Russia occurred outside the hotel this morning, the vast majority of spectators gathering along Karl Johans Gate have been nothing but deferential.

The harshest words for Medvedev came, unsurprisingly, from Yusupova. "I would tell him a lot," she said when I asked what she would say to the Russian president were she to encounter him in Oslo. "He would not have the time nor the patience to listen to all that I have to say.... I would ask him about the progress in the investigations into the murders of Natalia Estemirova and Anna Politkovskaya. I would ask him why members of the Duma are allowed to sit in parliament when they say such crude things about people in the Caucasus."

"How do your politics differ from the politics of Putin?" is one question Yusupova would like Medvedev to answer. But, alas, she never got the chance to challenge her president.

Others have taken a more nonconfrontational, indeed optimistic, approach to the ostensible scheduling snafu. When I told Arria, who is set to deliver a presentation on April 27 about his role in the war crimes trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, that I had spotted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just minutes earlier in the hotel lobby, he evinced a brief glimmer of despondence.

Arria and Lavrov go back to the mid-1990s, when Lavrov was Russia's representative to the United Nations and Arria served as assistant secretary-general. Arria expressed remorse that he had just missed the opportunity to exchange pleasantries with his former colleague. "Because there are so many critics all under the same roof, it could be a sign of hope," he chuckled. "We're all here together, no?"

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