Yeltsin and the 'comedy of errors'at Shannon


Nikolai Kozyrevwrites on what was it like to be Russian ambassador to Ireland when Boris Yeltsin didn't get off the plane at Shannon

THE PREPARATIONS for Boris Yeltsin's [ September 30th, 1994] visit to Ireland were made far in advance, but our embassy and the Irish were notified of the final decision less than a week before the event. I recall that taoiseach Albert Reynolds was on a visit to Australia at the time, but after receiving notification that the Russian president was to stop at Shannon, he cut his visit short by two days and returned to Shannon a few hours before the arrival of the high-ranking Russian guest.

While he waited, the taoiseach did the most sensible thing and took a nap to recuperate somewhat after his rather exhausting and long flight from Australia.

Although the weather in Shannon on September 30th was overcast and a fine autumn drizzle was falling, everything was ready to receive the Russian president: the guard of honor stood ready on the runway, the taoiseach and his key ministers with their wives stood under umbrellas not far from the place where the aircraft was to land, and a large crowd of Irish carrying the flags of both countries swarmed nearby, as well as an entire army of photographers and television correspondents, a large of number of whom had come from neighbouring England.

Thus, the interest in the meeting of the leaders of the two countries that close Europe's eastern and western flanks was immense, and no one suspected anything untoward.

Somewhere around 12.30 in the afternoon, the first aircraft bearing the so-called advance party landed, which was to be followed in about 10 minutes by the president's aircraft. But 10, 20, 40 minutes passed and the aircraft with the Russian president on board did not appear. As Aeroflot's general representative at Shannon, who was in contact with the aircraft, told me, aircraft number one bearing the Russian president had long come into view, but for some reason it was not landing, it was circling over the airport. Finally, after waiting for an hour, the president's aircraft landed, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. But it was too soon to relax. The same Aeroflot general representative said that Boris Yeltsin would not leave the plane: he was very tired and first vice premier [ Oleg] Soskovets, who was accompanying the president, would hold the talks instead of him. After asking the Aeroflot representative not to disclose this news so as not to spread panic, I decided to find out the whole story for myself when I boarded the aircraft.

According to the protocol, when a head of state visits a country, first the ambassador boards the plane accompanied by the head of the protocol service of the local ministry of the interior, who invite the high-ranking guest to descend the ramp to meet those waiting.

Not entirely believing what I had heard, I had no doubt that no matter what had happened, I would be able to talk the president into leaving the aircraft.

Walking up the ramp, I turned resolutely toward the president's compartment, but some figure wearing a sweater stood up and barred my way, saying: "You can't go in there, the president is very tired, he has been in the air for 17 hours, Soskovets will hold the talks in his place." All my attempts to explain that it was not simply a stopover, but a visit, that his Irish colleagues had been waiting for the Russian president for over an hour and there would be scandal were answered in the same way: "You can't go in there, Soskovets will hold the talks."

Only then did I realize that it was Alexander Korzhakov [ a KGB general who served as Boris Yeltsin's bodyguard] standing before me, whom I did not recognise at first, since it was dark in the aircraft passage. Not far away, somewhere in the corner, stood the first vice-premier of the Russian government, who was obviously distressed about the task that had so unexpectedly befallen him.

There was no point in trying to bargain further and waste more time: all I could do was descend the ramp under the lights and flashing of joumalists' cameras, in anticipation of Boris Yeltsin's appearance, and explain the whole situation to the taoiseach. What is more, I had to think up words of apology as I went along (naturally Korzhakov did not supply anything on this account), as well as the version that the president was not feeling well due to supposedly high blood pressure. When all this had been said and it was suggested that the talks be held with Soskovets, Albert Reynolds, who already suspected that something was amiss, said calmly: "Well now, if he is sick, there is nothing we can do about it. I am willing to talk to the Russian president's representative, but Mr Yeltsin, my guest, is on Irish soil, and I cannot miss this opportunity to go on board the airplane for five minutes, shake the president's hand and wish him a speedy recovery."

I must say that I expected this and even tried to warn Korzhakov that the Irish prime minister might want to do this, but he mumbled something like "and that can't be done either" in response.

After hearing his proposal denied, the taoiseach's face clouded for a second, but as an experienced politician, he immediately took a grip of himself and gave instructions to change the entire itinerary and hold the talks in the airport building. To the credit of the Irish, they dealt with the change in plans and shifted gears in literally 10 minutes: the extra furniture was removed from Delta's VIP reception room and refurnished for the negotiations.

I have to tell you what the Aeroflot representative, who was on board the president's aircraft near the exit for a time after the talks began in the airport building, told me a while after the incident. In his words, right after the talks began, Yeltsin appeared from the aircraft compartment. He was wearing a suit and tie and looked quite normal.

But Alexander Korzhakov and his wife immediately rushed up from behind and led him back into the compartment. All of this coincides with what Alexander Korzhakov wrote in his book about this incident at Shannon. In particular, he said that Boris Yeltsin wanted to go to the talks and was very upset when his aides, fearing for the state he was in, would not permit him to do this.

I have rather vague memories of the talks themselves. Naturally, the Russian-Irish dialogue did not get off the ground: Soskovets, who did not have the time to familiarise himself with the material, said one thing, while the taoiseach said another. All of my attempts to give Soskovets some hints on the topic of the talks were in vain.

The only thing I wanted was for this uncomfortable comedy of errors to be over as soon as possible. Luckily, about 40 minutes later, [ Vladimir] Shevchenko, the head of the president's protocol service, appeared in the room and whispered to Soskovets that he should draw things to a close since Yeltsin wanted to leave as soon as possible.

Such was the sad end of the Russian-Irish summit meeting, which failed before it got started. It goes without saying that the incident at Shannon aroused serious indignation in Ireland. It was not enough that the Irish mass media - press, television, and radio - severely criticised Russia and its president for the insult they said the Irish people and Ireland's prestige had been dealt. Reports, documentaries and cartoons filled the pages of the newspapers, airwaves and television screens. But the most unpleasant thing was that the embassy's telephones literally rang off the hook: ordinary Irishmen accused the Russians for electing Boris Yeltsin as their president.

The two largest newspapers, The Irish Times and Irish Independent, gave their front pages entirely to commentary and cartoons. One showed the president's aircraft standing on the runway with "Russia" painted on its side, nearby stood a group of greeters headed by the taoiseach, all eyes riveted on the aircraft's ramp, on which there was nothing save an empty vodka bottle rolling down with the inscription: "Hello from Yeltsin."

I also recall a conversation with a high-ranking Irishman, who said literally the following: "We Irish, like you Russians, also like to drink, and all kinds of things happen here. So if your president had come out to see us, we wouldn't have paid any attention to his state and would have forgiven him. But his refusal to come out of the airplane insulted us to the depth of our souls and showed us that a small country like Ireland wasn't worth reckoning with."

This situation threatened to significantly aggravate Ireland's relations with Russia, and of course, as ambassador, this could not help but concern me. I could not allow this absurd and unexpected situation at Shannon to undermine everything positive that had been accumulated during the past years in the relations between our countries.

In this respect, I sent a wire to Moscow asking for permission to visit the taoiseach and apologise to him in the name of the Russian president for the misunderstanding at Shannon, express the hope that it would not have a negative effect on Russian-Irish relations, and invite Albert Reynolds to pay an official visit to Moscow in the near future.

Unfortunately, I did not receive an immediate answer. After waiting for several hours, I phoned the foreign ministry and asked what the reaction was to my proposal. I was told the "reaction is ambivalent".

I had to phone presidential aide D [ Dimitiry] Riurikov, whom I knew well from working with in Iran and Afghanistan, and he told me that the foreign ministry had been given instructions to prepare a personal message from Boris Yeltsin to Albert Reynolds, which would be sent to me. After receiving the message, the contents of which largely coincided with what I had suggested, I immediately sent it to the taoiseach, and the next day Albert Reynolds' assistant said that the taoiseach was satisfied with the message and that "the question can be considered closed".

The very next day, the mass media stopped their anti-Russian propaganda and life returned to normal.

Nikolai Kozyrev is now chief researcher at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian foreign ministry. This article is extracted from The President Failed to Show, an account by Mr Kozyrev published in the current edition of International Affairs, an English language journal of the academy