Wednesday, July 04, 2007

He did it in English...

President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin
I just saw Putin on television in Guatemala pitching for the 2014 Olympics. Russia is trying to get the winter Olympics for that year and are pushing Sochi, the resort town on the Black Sea, an area referred to as the Russian Riviera. The International Olympic Committee will decide the winning bid on Wednesday. Austria and South Korea are also in the running.

What was really interesting though was that Putin made the entire speech in perfect English. And not only that, the last few sentences were said in flawless French, perfect accent and all.

Yahoo news called it this way:

    Russian President Vladimir Putin duly led the presentation for the Black Sea resort of Sochi here on Wednesday to win the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics but stunned his audience by speaking in English in public live for the first time ever.

    Putin, who was so nervous about his speaking in English before entering the hall where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members are assembled to hear the final presentations of Sochi, Salzburg and Pyeongchang that his legs were shaking, managed to give a command performance.

    "Keep your cool," commented one journalist to him.

    "To what?" replied Putin.

    Putin, who has been called the captain of the Sochi team and who has a dacha in Sochi, said that the history of Russia in winter sports - they have the most ever medals in Winter Olympic history - merited a win for the Russians.

    "We are good at hosting special events and over the last 25 years we have proved this by hosting 100 major championships," said Putin, who like his counterparts Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun have come here to lobby for their respective candidates.

    "Russia is the way ahead," he continued.

    "The Olympic family is going to feel at home in Sochi.

    "Winter sports are very popular in Russia and have proved that in the sporting arena but we have never had the honour to host the Winter Games."

    Putin said that that Sochi would bring to Russians and to the world something which has been lacking in the country since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

    "This would be the first ever winter sports cluster in Russia," he said.

    "After the break-up of the Soviet Union we lost all mountain venues, would you believe it!"

    "Thus all athletes have no venues to train in.

    "Sochi would be a new world class venue for the new Russia."

    Putin, who emphasised that there would be special care taken over the environment which has created some concerns in ecological circles with a beautiful national park and also security, wanted to also reassure sceptics that they could guarantee snow for the Games with people warning that there would be increasingly warm winters in the future.

    "I skiied there over six weeks ago and there was real snow, I kid you not!" said Putin, who reaffirmed the pledge of 12billion dollars for the Games.

    Putin added that he could also assure people of two other crucial factors to do with the Games.

    "We will lift all restrictions on minimum stays for delegations and that has been signed into law by myself," he said.

    "There will also be no traffic jams, I can promise you that."
Now perhaps this shouldn’t have affected me as deeply as it did. Perhaps if I would have been following Russian/Belarusian news in America or at least on cable, I would have heard the man speak several times in English. And I could even add to this that I understand he was intelligence which means he probably would have had an understanding of the language of his adversaries. But you must understand that after all the time that I have been here and all of the anti-American and European rhetoric that goes across my desk; I was simply not prepared for it.

For sure, Lukashenka doesn't speak English. I mean he might, but I have never heard even the slightest utterance from him outside of Russian. And after four years here I don't expect him to. So maybe this was part of the shock at listening to Putin.

Part of me though didn’t believe in it. I was thinking that perhaps the speech was written out for him phonetically with the translation just below it. There were several times in the speech when it seemed that he wanted to come off as spontaneous or even mildly hip or glib and it just didn’t seem right. But then again, this could also be cultural because Russians are sort of bottom line in their habits.

The French though I believed in. All upper-education types from the USSR spoke French. When I first got here in fact, this was the language I got along in. And when Putin went into French, it fell off the tongue as if it really belonged there.

Now Bush and Putin got together in Kennebunkport. Did anybody notice if there was a translator? When Hugo Chavez was in Belarus, there was a Russian/Spanish translator walking between Lukashenka and Chavez. And in Guatemala, when the head guy from the Olympics was talking, Putin had headphones on and then spoke in Russian to the press. But this was Spanish. Did anyone notice if Putin and Bush talked man to man, or did they need a go-between? I am only speaking about Putin here and again, I don't want to come off as insulting because learning a second or third language would not be something that would be beyond the man, that's a rediculous thought. George W on the other hand has troubles getting along in English; there is no way in hell the man speakes any Russian.

I guess what I am saying is that regardless of whether Putin really can speak English, watching the man put himself out like that in the English language came as a real shock. We just don't normally see this kind of thing in general. The presidents of Belarus and Russia simply don't… uh… work to impress; they for sure do not work to impress Europeans and they especially do not work to impress in the language of the Americans.

I mean, I get it that Russia really wants the Winter Olympics in Sochi the presidnt of the Russian Federation making a speech in English was simply saying that Russia is an internationally oriented, multi-ethnic and diverse country and that they have the capacity to host the Olympic games in the proper style and theme that has come to be expected by the international community. And that their doors in this case are very open. This I get. It is just that this is not what is going on around here on a day in and day out basis. On any normal day, they are working on the next cold war. On a normal day, frankly, everybody hates each other.

But today I guess, was not a normal day.

And really, even Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov knew that the English speech was going to be a shocker. On the third he was quoted as saying:

"Tomorrow's speech by the President will in some way be a surprise not only for the IOC but also for us,"

For sure it was. For sure…

More soon…