YES, We CANnot

27 September 2011, 15:42

This year, the Yalta European Strategy conference hit two records in its eight-year history: it had the most VIP guests and at the same time the biggest number of invited guests missed the event. This year, the Russians ignored YES entirely, despite their love of sharing their vision of democracy with the Europeans. Aleksandr Babakov, Deputy Speaker of the Russian parliament, was a no show, even though he was scheduled to speak. Babakov was supposed to share the stage with Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Moldovan Prime Minister Vladimir Filatov; European Commission for Enlargement member Stefan Füle; and Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, who had initiated the inspection of the 2009 gas deals. The fact that Russia defiantly ignored the conference prompted guests to recall past gas conflicts between Kyiv and Moscow. Germany’s ex-Chancellor Gerhardt Schröder who is now Chairman of the Board at Nord Stream, supported the boycott. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish Prime Minister, also ignored his invitation from YES.

Some other presidents also failed to show at the meetings: former president of Brasil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom the organizers have been inviting to Livadia Palace for a year, missed his chance to taste Ukrainian pickled herring and bacon canapé, a trademark appetizer at YES. As a result, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Leonid Kuchma, regular guests of the conference, were accompanied by the presidents of Ukraine and Israel, Viktor Yanukovych and Shimon Peres. Both had attended the events arranged by Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk earlier. Having taken two separate stages, the two leaders enjoyed hugely contrasting popularity. The 88-year old Israeli president presented his philosophical vision of modern problems and recommended the audience to take the most out of Shakespeare’s romantic heroes and Chekhov’s realistic characters.

Even the delegation from India listened intently to Peres. On the other hand, many of those who listened to Yanukovych's short speech appeared anxious to get to the coffee break as they sat playing their electronic devices and enjoying the free Wi-Fi in the meantime.

Still, most of the guests did listen to Yanukovych. Representatives of the government showed their excitement, the opposition had sarcastic smiles on their faces, and European officials looked distrustful of the president. The EU diplomats thought they had effectively cornered Yanukovych: either Yulia Tymoshenko would be set free or the EU would not sign the Association Agreement with Ukraine this year. Earlier they requested this in letters and by phone, but the conference provided an excellent venue to say the same in person. In the end however, they did not get what they wanted. Yanukovych repeated said he has nothing to do with the Tymoshenko case and could not influence the judges. Eventually, the European democrats did not learn anything new about the case.

This year, the Ukrainian president continued introducing the foreigners to Russian proverbs and sayings. Last year, he said ‘the shoes know their way’ as he responded to a question about where Ukraine was heading, towards Europe or Russia. This year, he commented on Ukraine’s gas problems with Moscow saying, 'the bombs are going off closer and closer,' a quote from Valentin Katayev’s A Teenage Novel. Not all of the guests appreciated the president’s attempts to lighten the mood. The foreigners who listened to Yanukovych’s speech through interpreters did not look very enthusiastic. By contrast, the audience of Nobel Prize winning Shimon Peres gave his hour-long lecture a standing ovation. “A leader is someone who walks ahead, not someone who is at the top. Those at the bottom will never understand a leader at the top.” The guests awarded these philosophic reflections of the Israeli President with applause. No other speaker enjoyed such a response from the audience.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the rich and powerful with a speech similar to what he reads for college students. The founder and the patron of the Faith Foundation looked more like a pastor than a politician with 10-years experience of being prime minister. Blair said religion was evolving along with computer technologies and the number of believers was increasing every day through social networks. According to Blair, it is religion, not politics or the economy, that will play the major role in solving today's conflicts.

The YES forum sometimes seems to suffer from world-renowned speakers like Blair treating it as a venue for giving contracted speeches rather than as a place to get involved in deeper discussions that could give rise to new concepts inspiring debate about how Ukraine should live in the modern world.

In fact, Ukrainian officials did their best to once again amuse the guests and confirm the assumption that new ideas and worthy ideas are not always synonyms. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov launched a new bogeyman story even though his partners had generated it many times before; he suggested that Ukraine’s European neighbors should decide what to do with the Ukrainian gas pipeline. Azarov sought guarantees from foreign gas consumers that they would buy enough gas over the coming years to make sure Ukraine used the full capacity of its transit system. If Europeans do not order enough Russian gas, Ukraine will have to freeze a part of its transit system, he said. The reaction to these novelties was nothing more than shrugged shoulders. The impression seemed to be, "what good is a government whose leader has no idea what to do with strategic objects in his country?"

Unlike Ukraine’s gas transit system, Livadia Palace where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had once divided Europe was more popular than the speeches themselves. Shortly after European officials left in their inexpensive business class cars, a cortege of Porsche Cayenne’s drove up to park by the historical site. Livadia Palace was hosting a chic Ukrainian wedding.

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