Putin on the birds: 'Only the weak ones didn't follow' me
Speaking at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin talked of leading a flock of birds and got in a veiled dig at voters who spurned him.
This year's Russian-hosted summit¬†of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation¬†(APEC) wrapped up in Vladivostok Sunday, with leaders of the 21-member Pacific Rim group ‚Äď¬†which accounts for 40 percent of the world's trade ‚Äď¬†pledging to promote freer¬†regional commerce as a buffer against a lingering global crisis and financial woes in the¬†Eurozone.
The host, President Vladimir Putin, declared the week-long meeting a complete¬†success. "We managed not only to preserve the continuity of APEC activities, but to set¬†new horizons and most importantly give a positive signal to business circles," he told the¬†final news conference Sunday.
He was responding to a question about the overwhelmingly derisive public reaction to¬†his televised PR stunt last week, in which he dressed up like an endangered Siberian crane, mounted a motorized¬†hang glider, and led a group of the captivity-raised birds onto their correct migratory¬†path.
Among the multitude of jokes that spawned in the wake of that performance was TV¬†hostess and opposition leader Ksenia Sobchak's jibe that actually "only 63 percent of the¬†cranes followed him" ‚Äď¬†the same percentage that voted for Putin in March presidential¬†polls.
Putin's response instantly lit up the Russian Internet, and will probably have commentators scratching their¬†heads for at least the next few days: "Indeed, not all of the cranes followed me. Only the¬†weak ones didn't follow," he said, leaving little doubt that he was working with Ms.¬†Sobchak's metaphor.
"There are certain birds that do not fly in flocks," he went on. "They prefer to nest¬†separately.... Even if they are not members of the flock, they are members of our¬†population, and they have to be treated carefully ‚Äď¬†of course, to the extent that this is¬†possible."
Big plans for Siberia
Aside from that, Putin could rightly claim the Vladivostok summit as a major impetus¬†for Russia's efforts to turn itself into a key economic and political player in the Far East.
Among other things, he pledged that Russia ‚Äď¬†which finally joined the World Trade¬†Organization in August ‚Äď¬†will promote Asian free trade, build an array of infrastructure¬†projects in Siberia to facilitate the flow of Russian raw materials eastward, and create¬†road, rail, pipeline, and sea links that will make Russian territory the main corridor for¬†trade between Europe and the Far East.
Russia has been upgrading the 6,800 mile Trans-Siberian Highway ¬†‚Äď which still exists¬†largely in name only ‚Äď¬†between Vladivostok on the Pacific and St. Petersburg on the Baltic,¬†so that it might eventually be open to heavy trucking. A couple of years ago Putin's¬†predecessor Dmitry Medvedev put forward a plan to extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad¬†through North Korea to Seoul, making direct rail links¬†between Europe and the Far East viable for the first time. And the Kremlin has ordered¬†creation of a special northern military force, and construction of a $30-billion port on the¬†Arctic Ocean in anticipation of an ice-free Arctic sea route¬†over¬†the top of Siberia, that is expected to open up in coming years thanks to global warming.
"We suggest using our country's transit potential to diversify regional and global¬†supply chains and to create new, shorter, more profitable routes that will link the Asia-Pacific and Europe across both the continental regions of Russia and through the North¬†Sea route," Putin said.
Tensions with Europe over gas
Putin also slammed the European Union for trying to drive down the price of Russian¬†gas, using non-market tactics "as if it were still Soviet times."
"Europe wants to maintain political influence, but in such a way that we pay for it a¬†little," Putin told APEC.
The key message out of the APEC summit was that regional economies need to step¬†up cooperation among themselves in order to preserve their own dynamic growth and¬†buffer themselves against the winds of recession and financial volatility emanating from¬†Europe. "The events in Europe are adversely affecting growth in the region," the final¬†communique said. "In such circumstances, we are resolved to work collectively to support¬†growth and foster financial stability, and restore confidence."
They also promised to lower tariffs on environmental goods, enhance regional "food¬†security" ‚Äď¬†to protect against a feared surge in food prices next year ‚Äď¬†and step up¬†measures to protect endangered animal species.
Putin meets Clinton
Meeting on the sidelines with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US¬†Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was hopeful that Congress will soon repeal the¬†cold war era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which stands in the way of full trade relations¬†between Russia and the US and has long been a major political irritant as well.
But the inevitable discussion of yawning US-Russia differences over Syria¬†do not seem to have gone well. Russia wants the US to support a¬†transitional deal that might keep embattled Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad in power while a¬†new government, including opposition figures, can be formed. The Russians claim that Ms.¬†Clinton and other Western leaders agreed to this plan at a Geneva meeting in June, and¬†want the US to back it at the upcoming UN General Assembly.
But Clinton told reporters in Vladivostok there was no point in promoting a toothless¬†scheme that Mr. Assad could easily ignore.
"We have to be realistic. We haven't seen eye-to-eye on Syria," with the Russians,¬†she said. "That may continue. And if it does continue then we will work with like-minded¬†states to support the Syrian opposition to hasten the day when Assad falls."