Observations from the 60th anniversary celebrations in Moscow

On May 9, Russia marked the 60th anniversary of the Great Victory. It was an exceptional event, in terms of the scale of the celebrations, the number of foreign visitors, and the impact on international politics. Only a few of the invited guests stayed away.

On May 9, Russia marked the 60th anniversary of the Great Victory. It was an exceptional event, in terms of the scale of the celebrations, the number of foreign visitors, and the impact on international politics. As we had predicted, the main theme during the ceremonies, meetings, and talks was History – or, more precisely, how History is interpreted by Russia and the West. All the world leaders who came to Moscow for the festivities – from President George W. Bush to President Lukashenko of Belarus – shook hands with President Vladimir Putin and spoke of the Great Victory’s significance and the role played by Russian soldiers.

But now the celebrations are over; the foreign leaders have returned to their own countries, where they will solve problems in their own way, based on their own understanding of foreign policy priorities. The Victory and the celebrations of it are now part of history. How successful has Russia been in using this anniversary to uphold its interests?

If we compare television footage to what actually went on behind the scenes, we see that viewers missed a great many interesting things. Let’s take a look at what the cameras failed to pick up.

May 9, 8:40 a.m. All approaches to Red Square are blocked off. War veterans and invited guests are moving towards the Kremlin. Their invitations include detailed instructions on where to go and where to sit. They have to make their way past all the complicated security cordons and find their seats on the strictly-regulated stands. The heads of state have the privilege of being the last to take their seats for the parade. On each seat allocated to war veterans and invited guests, there is a package of papers.

President Putin himself greets the guests. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder gets a particularly friendly welcome; Putin embraces him and starts talking in German. President Bush and his wife get kissed twice. So does Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom Putin performs a complex greeting ritual using his hands.

The parade followed a fairly traditional scenario: President Putin’s speech, a display of the Victory Banner, the customary “Long life to you, Comrade Minister!” salute. Incidentally, it seems likely that Bush didn’t understand Putin’s speech after all; all the time Putin was speaking, Bush kept trying to grab the translation text from his wife, Laura, or others seated near him.

This anniversary parade was notable for the absence of military hardware (perhaps the most substantive peculiarity), the participation of field engineers and dog squads, the absurd uniforms worn by the veterans – and the curious behavior of Russia’s third most senior state official, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. When a column of paratroopers appeared on Red Square, Mironov leapt up from his seat, ignoring the puzzled glances of his neighbors, and raised his right fist in a salute. He maintained this pose for about two minutes, looking quite happy and paying no attention to anything else. Some onlookers quietly asked why Mironov was so inspired by the paratroopers in particular. “He served in the Airborne Troops,” said someone who was familiar with Mironov’s background.

The cavalry procession added its own curiosities. As everyone knows, horses tend to get nervous too; and those who followed them in the parade had no choice but to step on the consequences.

Overall, the parade was clearly a success. Impressed by the flight of fighter jets and the power of the Russian Armed Forces, world leaders moved on to lay flowers at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier, followed by a photo session, and then a magnificent reception in the Kremlin, where the thousand or so guests included some World War II veterans. Not all the veterans, of course. Most of them had to make their own way, on foot, from Red Square to other festive events.

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The world leaders who didn’t attend the celebrations

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili did not attend the CIS heads of state summit or the May 9 celebrations. A day before the celebrations, the Russian and Georgian foreign affairs ministers failed to reach agreement on a declaration about the deadline for withdrawing Russian bases from Georgia. (Georgia insisted on the withdrawal being completed by January 2008, while Russia proposed December 2008.) Under the circumstances, Saakashvili figured that he had no business attending the Moscow festivities. Nevertheless, all of Saakashvili’s colleagues from the GUUAM regional organization did attend. President Ilkham Aliyev of Azerbaijan stayed away from the CIS heads of state summit on May 8, arguing that he could not sit at the same table as the Armenian president “on the anniversary of the takeover of Azeri land, the city of Shushi, by Armenian occupation forces” – but Aliyev still came to Moscow for the Red Square parade on May 9.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt was kept away from the Moscow festivities by a political crisis at home. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had already overcome his own crisis – that is, the parliamentary elections – but he still didn’t come to Moscow on May 9. Right now, forming a new cabinet is more important for him. Blair sent greetings to Putin, and an apology for his absence. Putin has been understanding about Blair’s situation.