We had a lot of very important people in Iceland earlier this month. On 8 June, the 6th Annual Baltic Sea State Summit was held at Hotel Nordica. In attendance were the prime ministers of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Norway, Poland, the Russian Federation, Sweden and Iceland, along with the foreign ministers of Germany and Lithuania, and a European Commission ambassador. A pretty heavy bill, and one that I was looking forward to seeing in action.
Oh, wait. We weren’t actually going to see the conference. No, the press wasn’t going to come in until after the conference was over to hear a general statement and then engage in a few minutes of Q&A. Which was still an improvement on last month’s economic conference at the same venue. On that occasion, we were not only excluded from the conference itself, we weren’t even allowed to ask questions afterwards. That privilege was given to the guests in attendance. And don’t even get me started on the confrontation I had with a security guard on my way in. But I digress.
The Baltic Sea States conference was, like most other such events, a celebration of the vague. You hear phrases like “continued cooperation” and “working towards common goals” and “enhanced roles contributed substantially towards valued opportunities”. Bored by reading it? Imagine writing it.
After showing our credentials and passing through the metal detector/baggage search, we were ushered along, tauntingly roped off from seven tables laden with gourmet banquet food in the entrance hall, into the conference room. There, we were fitted for simultaneous translation headphones.
Simultaneous translation must be the most stressful job in the world. It certainly isn’t the most graceful one, at least not compared to what you see in action thriller movies, where some supergenius rattles off an ambassador’s words flawlessly, not missing a beat. In actuality, it sounds as difficult as it is – phrases come in fits and starts, sometimes between extended pauses. You look around at the Russian journalists, scribbling feverishly, some smiling, some shaking their heads, and for a few seconds all you can think is, “What? What am I missing?” Then the translation catches up, or skips ahead. How are you going to know? You can only hope.
On this occasion, Q&A was fairly uneventful. That is, until the Grapevine’s #1 Fan Óli Tynes had a question. Oh Christ, I thought. What’s his question going to be?
“My question is for the Polish prime minister,” he said. “Mr. Prime Minister, it was recently reported that construction contractors in Poland are having a hard time finding Polish workers for their projects. Do you think the free flow of labour within the EU countries has hurt the Polish labour market?”
The Swedish PM – I swear I’m not making this up – actually rolled his eyes. He might have been thinking the same thing I was: that Óli was fishing for ammunition for some anti-immigrant piece he was hatching. Still, I thought it was a fair question.
“This is a matter with two dimensions,” answered the Polish prime minister. “First is freedom and democracy. We have tried our best to make Poland a free and democratic country, where everyone has the same type of passport so that they can be used in the same way. Second is the Polish economy. That problem will hopefully be resolved, to a realistic degree, within three years’ time, to where Poles will employ more Poles.”
Translation: What do you want me to do, build a wall around Poland? You criticised the communist regime way back when, and now you’re getting on my case now that our people have freedom of movement? Back up off me. We’re doing our best.
Suddenly, we were done here. We were ushered back out, again roped off from the food, and into the street. But it wasn’t over yet.
Later that day, PM Ásgrímsson met with Russian Federation Prime Minister Mikhail E. Fradkov at the slightly less formal minister’s House, next to the pond Tjörnin. There, the Russian media were already in full force – radio, television, newspapers, maybe even bloggers were present – along with various untitled officials and large men rocking the earpiece/sunglasses/stern expression look.
After a brief argument between a Russian media official and an Icelandic media official over where the two PMs were to stand, the Russians were going for a background shot of the street and the pond while the Icelanders wanted the house in the background. The two men emerged at last.
Normally when I see Ásgrímsson in public, he looks tired and vaguely annoyed. But on this occasion, he carried himself like a man with a tremendous weight recently lifted from his shoulders. A lot like an exceedingly unpopular public official who had tendered his resignation.
“We had a very good meeting,” said Ásgrímsson, “We discussed our economic cooperation and trade, and want to do our utmost to increase trade between our two countries, especially in the areas of fishing and tourism. We are very pleased with the results.”
A well-executed, official sounding opener. The Q&A then went into Iceland sharing geothermal energy technology with the Russian Federation, which made me feel a little surge of pride.
And then someone from the Icelandic media asked this question: “What conse-quences do you think might result from Georgia and the Ukraine joining NATO?”
My jaw literally dropped. This is a great example of a “stealth question,” throwing in an important, albeit wholly unrelated, question that usually wrong-foots the person asked, but Fradkov’s response was stunning:
“My imagination doesn’t go that far. I don’t think we have the right to decide for these two countries what they should do.”
Both the Russian Parliament and President Putin have said that they are dead-set against Georgia and the Ukraine joining NATO; that such a move would throw the whole geopolitical set-up out of whack, and might result in diplomatic consequences. And here, in our own little country, the Prime Minister of Russia was expressing a very different opinion. This was news. It gave me chills to be in the presence of such an event.
I went home to type up my articles, truly excited about my work. And this is why I love press conferences: although the vast majority of the time you’re bored, cold, irritable and wishing you were somewhere else, there are those occasions when you witness news happen. And it’s worth more than all the gourmet banquet food in the world.