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G20 Planners 'Tweak Seating Order' to Keep Obama, Putin Apart

  • RFE/RL

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin after their bilateral meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, 2012, on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin after their bilateral meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, 2012, on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

It's often the quiet moves that tell you about the real atmosphere of relations between heads of state.

With the United States and Russia at loggerheads over issues from the civil war in Syria to fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have nonetheless made some efforts to cast their relationship as workable.

Who’s Sitting Where?

And yet, as the two prepare to join other world leaders in Saint Petersburg for a G20 summit this week (September 5-6), a report in a pro-Kremlin paper says they will not even sit near each other.

"Izvestia" reported on September 4 that the organizers of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg have rewritten the seating plan with the Latin instead of Cyrillic alphabet to ensure that Putin and Obama are not placed near each other.

The presidents of Russia (Rossiya in Russian) and the United States (SShA) would have been almost side-by-side, separated only by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, if the seating plan had been written in the host country’s language.

In English, however, Russia and the United States’ place names would be separated by South Africa, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. "The seating arrangement will be according to the English alphabet," Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told "Izvestia."

The apparent revelation comes as observers are scanning for signs that Obama and Putin could talk on the fringes of the summit.

It wouldn’t be the first time summit seating plans have been politicized. At a NATO Summit in Prague in 2002, NATO officials reportedly rewrote the seating arrangement in French in order to isolate then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma at the far end of the table.

And there are strong signals that Washington-Moscow ties are in a rut. After Russia granted former U.S. intelligence contractor Snowden temporary asylum, Obama cancelled a bilateral meeting with Putin due in Moscow ahead of the G20 summit.

The decision followed the Kremlin’s crackdown on protesters, as well as disagreements on how to resolve the civil war raging in Syria which has killed over 100,000 people and displaced millions.

Permanent UN Security Council member Russia has consistently opposed any international military action against Syria, saying the situation would not improve after the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Workable Relationship

And yet, both Russia and Washington’s leaders say their relationship is workable. Early last month, Obama was quoted as saying he did not have a "bad personal relationship" with Putin, although Obama went on to refer to the Russian president’s "slouch" and said it made him look "like a bored kid in the back of the classroom."

Putin seems philosophical.

"President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia. And your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either," he said in an interview with the Associated Press and Russia's Channel One TV on September 4.

"We work, we argue about some issues. We are human. Sometimes one of us gets vexed. But I would like to repeat once again that global mutual interests form a good basis for finding a joint solution to our problems."

-- Tom Balmforth

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