Finally, a G20 summit worth writing about

Putin is not going to lose any sleep over what he heard in Brisbane from his western counterparts co

There were some outstanding performances by some world leaders in Brisbane, writes Nekrassov [Reuters]

What are G20 summits if not talking shops for world leaders who usually get together, at huge cost for taxpayers, and produce a bland joint statement that contains promises which are rarely met? In fact, if you look back at these summits, you would notice that hacks usually struggle to report anything of substance in the first couple of days, banging on about “unprecedented levels of security” and “angry protesters” demanding that world leaders listen to their concerns.

But the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, proved to be a different sort of occasion for both the scribblers and talking heads. It had suspense and rumours of stand-offs from the word go.  

The world was treated to a production called “West gives President Vladimir Putin a piece of its mind over Russia’s role in Ukraine”. There were some outstanding performances by some world leaders, who used the opportunity to flex their diplomatic muscles, show what they were made of and talk the talk and even walk the walk. Especially as it so happened that several days before the summit reports had emerged that “Russian tanks and heavy artillery” had crossed the border into Ukraine and all the usual suspects in Kiev and beyond made all the usual noises about Moscow “escalating the crisis in eastern Ukraine”.

Posturing and chest-beating

The stage was therefore set for some serious posturing and chest-beating in Brisbane, sparing hacks the humiliating task of tracking down some odd looking anti-globalists for an interview or filming stern-faced cops, looking into the distance purposefully, representing the “unprecedented levels of security”.

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In fact, the excitement had started even before the summit opened, with British Prime Minister David Cameron addressing journalists at a joint press conference with the host, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Both pointed to the dangers of ignoring the lessons of history and letting a big country bully smaller ones.

Hacks added a bit of drama to his words and – presto! – we had headlines saying that Cameron had “compared Russia to Nazi Germany”, with some especially excited journos even saying that he had “likened Putin to Hitler”.  

Then finally the Russian president arrived and the drama went into overdrive, with the poor “angry protesters” struggling to get noticed. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who usually gets overlooked at the G20 and G8 summits, was thrown into the spotlight on this occasion by supposedly telling Putin during their handshake to “get out of Ukraine!” At least that was how it happened according to Harper’s aides; my own Russian sources told me that it was actually much more cordial than that, with Putin replying that there were no Russian troops in Ukraine and there was nothing to discuss. But hey, the drama still played out well in TV news bulletins, on the news wires and in news print.

There were other cases of muscle flexing and posturing, with US President Barack Obama warning Putin that he risked further isolation if he didn’t change his ways in Ukraine and rumours surfacing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hinting that more sanctions against Russia could follow. Cameron also had a chance to demonstrate that he was not to be taken lightly, giving Putin a handshake with attitude, before holding a one-on-one meeting with him. French President Francois Hollande had his stern expression on when he came to meet with Putin. The joke among the Russian journos accompanying Putin was that western leaders were all jealous of Putin’s 88 per cent popularity rating – domestically.

Something to write about

Hacks were over the moon with all that excitement, thanking their lucky stars that they had something to write about for once from a G20 summit.

The climax of the summit came when it was reported that Putin would be leaving Brisbane earlier than others, supposedly “upset” by all that criticism levelled at him. That gave more ammo to the hungry pack of reporters, keeping them guessing what Putin’s real game was. The Russian president himself said that he had to leave earlier, to catch some sleep and be at his desk in the Kremlin first thing in the morning the next day. Few people bought that but the overall conclusion was that Putin was not going to lose any sleep over what he had heard in Brisbane from his western counterparts concerning Ukraine and that the issue was not going away any time soon.       

And it was then that reality of another G20 summit kicked in and the media had to deal with a rather boring document that lacked any serious meat on its bones. For example, it stated that the G20 nations would increase their GDP by an additional 2 per cent by the year 2018, but contained no suggestions on how exactly it would be achieved. It also talked about job growth and an increase in investment, but again in very vague terms.

The really exciting parts, according to some hacks, were the mention of climate and Ebola in the document but no deadlines or specific amounts of money were given so it was unclear how this would work. Sharing information on tax evasion was the only point that got some people going, but the lack of any commitment to make that information public took off a lot of the gloss from the proposal.

Hardly value for money for the $800 million spent on this summit. Still, at least there was a bit of drama for a change.

Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.