At the Crimean resort of Yalta last Thursday the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, waited in sweltering heat for his honored guest, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to show up for a scheduled summit to thrash out the two nations’ differences over the price of natural gas.And he waited, along with all his officials, for four hours after the meeting was supposed to begin. Eventually, Mr. Putin showed up, and someone explained to the Ukrainians that he’d stopped to “drink a glass” with a group of Russian bikers known as the “Night Wolves” on his way to the summit.
That incident might be put down to a quirk of Russian-Ukrainian relations, which are quite strained these days over the price of gas and other issues.
But since coming to power 12 years ago, Putin has developed a consistent reputation for keeping everybody waiting, sometimes for hours, including Russians of every social station, foreign leaders, global corporate executives, the queen of England, and even, once, the pope.
The now-three term Russian leader’s habitual lateness has seldom been made an issue of and goes widely unreported. Supporters say it’s really his only personal vice, while critics argue that the Russian media – which often covered Putin’s episodes of tardiness during his long-ago first term of office – has since clammed up about it out of fear of offending the Kremlin.
We only happen to know about the incident in Crimea last week because a few outraged Ukrainian officials have chosen to make an issue of it.
“Rather than rush to a meeting, a stop was made to drink a glass with bikers.… In my opinion, it is a diplomatic slap in the face or just plain rudeness. This is a manifestation of abnormal relations,” former Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko told a press conference in Kiev last Friday.
“President Putin exceeded the limits of a delay. He went to meet with motorheads and their friends, showing his priorities,” in Ukraine, Emergency Situations Minister Viktor Baloga wrote on his Facebook page, according to AFP.
Last month, at the start of an important state visit to Israel, Putin kept “the entire upper echelons of Israel’s government” waiting for 90 minutes before showing up to take part in the unveiling of a monument to Soviet Red Army sacrifices in World War II, according to Haaretz.
Later in June, Putin dissed hundreds of top global corporate executives at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, a meeting organised by the Kremlin to reassure foreign investors that Russia is a good destination for their capital, by keeping them waiting for 40 minutes in a crowded auditorium. Putin reportedly arrived three hours late for another, private, meeting with foreign CEOs, who were forced to cool their heels in a narrow corridor. Those incidents prompted the English-language Moscow Times to pen an editorial – rare in any Russian media – scolding Putin for his lack of manners.
“Obviously, foreign investors are not going to ignore Russia because Putin cannot make it to meetings on time,” the paper wrote. “Russia offers tremendous opportunities, and Putin has made it easier to invest here. But his apparent inability to keep appointments does reveal a lack of respect for investors, for whom ‘time is money.’ Putin is overlooking a simple way to show investors that he values them. He should be on time.”
Over the years, Putin has kept the Finnish president waiting for two hours, German Chancellor Angela Merkel for 40 minutes, the king of Sweden for 30 minutes, the king and queen of Spain for 20 minutes, and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for three hours.
During his first year as president, in June 2000, Putin reportedly arrived “as much as 15 minutes late” for a meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, according to archived Russian news reports.
“This habitual lateness of Putin’s can be read in different ways, as a character trait or his way of demonstrating his attitude toward others,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of the Moscow-based opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
“But only God is above him now. He’s person No. 1, and he can afford to be late whenever he wants,” he adds.
But it’s Russians and officials of neighbouring post-Soviet countries who’ve probably had to bear the brunt of Putin’s tardiness.
“In October of 2011, a meeting of heads of governments of Commonwealth of Independent States began three hours late because they had to wait on Putin,” writes veteran Russian journalist and blogger Andrei Malygin on his LiveJournal blog. “Even during his election campaign [early this year] he made students in Tomsk wait for him for 2 hours; local journalists had to wait for 9 hours [for a scheduled press meeting], during which time security officials forbade them from leaving the place…. In 2008 journalists were urgently summoned to Putin’s dacha, and told that he had an urgent announcement to make. Several hours later, in the middle of the night, Putin appeared and told them he’d gathered them together to show them a tiger cub he’d been given as a present.”
Sometimes there is no lighthearted way to look at it: “In 2002 families of children who died in an air crash in Germany waited for Putin to appear for the funeral. When he didn’t turn up, they buried their children and went off to the wake…. But once they were seated, officials appeared and told them to go to the cemetery to repeat the funeral with Putin present…. Even when they returned to the graveyard they had to wait another 2 hours for him,” Mr. Malygin writes. (The story was covered by some Russian media outlets in 2002.)
On another occasion, in April 2001, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church delayed the traditional Easter midnight declaration that “Christ has Risen!” for 10 minutes until Putin showed up.
“Yes, I had to wait for Putin many times, about half an hour on average,” recalls Ella Pamfilova, a veteran Russian Duma deputy, government minister, and Kremlin human rights commissioner who retired in 2010. “But honestly, there are worse sins and other things in life that are more important.”
Even some of Putin’s toughest critics agree.
“They say that punctuality is the courtesy of kings, though Putin is no king,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, a long-time left-wing activist and director of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movement Studies in Moscow.
“If that were the only problem we have with Putin, I think we might easily excuse it,” he adds.
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