Another Tense Moment on the "Sergey and Condi Show"
POTSDAM, Germany, May 30--The bickering "Sergey and Condi Show" is a quite a hit on the diplomatic circuit, at least for reporters.
Rarely can Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have a joint appearance these days without sparks flying and tempers flaring. Today's news conference, held after a meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers in this historic German city, did not disappoint. Sarcasm, sharp jokes and stiletto jabs were plentiful as the two officials battled over missile defense and the future status of Kosovo.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, seated uncomfortably between the two, shifted back and forth as if she was watching an especially vicious tennis rally.
Rice trained as a Soviet specialist and speaks Russian well, but she has a prickly, often difficult relationship with Lavrov.
Lavrov spent a decade at the United Nations as Russia's top diplomat, and he is a proud and frequently effective diplomat. He put Rice on the spot during their very first meeting after she became Secretary of State, when he met with her in Ankara, Turkey, and presented her with a long list of complaints. One U.S. official said Lavrov argues forcefully for his position, but he's never been sure if Lavrov really believes much of what he says.
At last year's G-8 foreign ministers meeting, held in Moscow, Russian technicians forgot to turn off the microphones in the room where the ministers held a private lunch. Reporters were able to overhear a tense conversation between Rice and Lavrov about Iraq. With increasing irritation during the lunch, Rice sometimes cut off Lavrov in mid-sentence with tart comments, at one point demanding, "What does that mean?"
After a long pause, Lavrov said: "I think you understand."
Rice shot back: "No, I don't."
This year, the fireworks were quite public. The fact that the meeting was held in the historic Cecilienhof Palace--where allied leaders met in 1945 to negotiate the postwar landscape of Europe--added to the echoes of Cold War tensions.
Lavrov pounced at the first question, which concerned Rice's comment the day before that Russia's opposition to a missile defense system for Europe was based on a "ludicrous" concept.
"For Russia, this situation is not ludicrous at all," Lavrov said. "At the moment all they are saying is, 'Don't worry, it is not aimed at you.' But such answers are indeed ludicrous."
Shortly before the news conference, the White House announced that President Bush had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the Bush family estate at Kennebunkport, Maine, on July 1-2. "All sorts of areas where our positions do not coincide will be discussed," Lavrov said.
In an effort to break the tension, Rice announced the Putin visit at the end of today's news conference. She teasingly challenged Lavrov if he could pronounce "Kennebunkport." Lavrov, a fluent English speaker, easily passed the test.
-- Glenn Kessler
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