BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasted little time with diplomatic niceties when he met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 leaders’ private retreat Saturday.
In a terse exchange that set the tone for a day of talks and protest, Harper rebuked Putin almost immediately.
Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald told Canadian reporters Harper had been chatting with a handful of other leaders when Putin entered the room.
Putin approached Harper and stuck out his hand to shake the Canadian prime minister’s, said MacDonald.
After months of public condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military support for separatist rebels in Ukraine, Harper accepted the handshake with a blunt message.
The prime minister said: “Well, I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine,” recounted MacDonald.
“Mr. Putin did not respond positively,” he said, declining to offer any further details about their conversation, or whether there were any other similar comments by other leaders who were there.
Later, a press spokesman for the Russian Federation told a slightly different version of their encounter, but confirmed the gist of it to Canadian reporters, saying the Russian delegation was “really surprised” to hear the conversation reported as a rebuff, saying they “greeted” each other.
“From our side, Mr. Harper and Mr. Putin shook hands and Mr. Harper said: ‘You should go away from Ukraine.’ And Mr. Putin said: ‘It’s impossible, since we are not there,’” said the delegate who agreed to speak on condition he was not named by Canadian reporters.
He said he had no further information about any of the other discussions in the room; “The retreat was closed,” he said, adding he was offering comment because “since you gave it just one side, we’re giving you another.”
Bessma Momani, senior fellow at the Center for International Governance and Innovation associate professor at University of Waterloo, said it was interesting that it was “Harper being the kind of tough guy on the G20 block to really point out to Putin that Ukraine is not up for grabs, and clearly I think it’s a very important development.” Russia’s antics are “really a lot to swallow for many of the Western countries here.”
The fact that geopolitical tensions are overshadowing much of the “technical” economic discussions just shows “the G20 honeymoon is over,” she said. The warm glow leaders shared when they faced the 2008 economic crisis together is gone, she added.
The Harper-Putin conversation, widely reported by Canadian media, was in sharp contrast to a warm welcome, in front of cameras, offered to Putin by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, despite Abbott’s earlier threats that he intended to “shirtfront” — an Australian football expression for physical confrontation — Putin over the downed MH17 flight that killed all 298 aboard, including 38 Australian citizens and residents.
Business Insider Magazine Australia headlined its story: “Canadian PM Stephen Harper Just Showed Tony Abbott How To Shirtfront The Russian President.”
Russia’s president was clearly an unwanted guest in the eyes of many and, at the end of the first day, Russian officials said Putin would leave Sunday, a couple of hours earlier than previously planned, but said it was a mere scheduling change.
About 200 Ukrainian-Australian protestors led a peaceful demonstration in the sweltering streets of Brisbane carrying signs that read “Crimea is Ukraine” and demanding justice for the victims of the downed Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in July.
Australian television showed images of several lying prone on a large Ukrainian flag, their bodies covered in the national flags of the crash victims. Police said all protests in Brisbane have been peaceful.
At a barbecue lunch, Putin sat at a table for six, with just Brazilian President Dilma Roussef sitting opposite. There seemed to be little chit-chat. However Putin took part in a separate meeting of the big emerging market economies, or BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
In a chippy statement, that group said it was doing its part for global economic activity “by sustaining high growth rates, despite adverse circumstances and spillovers from policies of major advanced economies, especially monetary policies.”
They “noted the G20 efforts, but underscored that more needs to be done to support global demand in the short run, especially by advanced economies.”
It was a tit-for-tat kind of day.
U.S. President Barack Obama left the summit site to deliver a major speech on his priorities for American-Asia relations for the last part of his mandate.
At the University of Queensland, Obama said the U.S. will continue to step forward to lead on many issues, including “opposing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine — which is a threat to the world, as we saw in the appalling shootdown of MH17.”
Yet on the global economy, Obama said over the last few years the United States “has put more people back to work than all other advanced economies combined. But America can’t be expected to just carry the world economy on our back.”
“Here in Brisbane, the G20 has a responsibility to act — to boost demand, and invest more in infrastructure, and create good jobs for the people of all our nations.”
The G20 leaders are expected to agree Sunday on a plan to boost their collective economic output by 2 per cent over the next five years, by adopting national plans to increase spending on infrastructure, drop nontariff barriers to trade and pursue “fiscal consolidation” or austerity to meet their targets.
Canadian Finance Minister Joe Oliver said it will not be easy for some, but it “is doable” if each country sticks to its promise to deliver a national implementation plan.
Canada’s growth is close to that now, hovering around 2 per cent, and Oliver said he does not intend to further increase the infrastructure spending beyond $70 billion planned over 10 years. Instead, Oliver said the Conservative government will pursue an expanded trade agenda.
To that end, Harper met with India Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time to talk trade. There have been eight rounds of negotiations to reach a foreign investment protection agreement — like the one with China — and a free trade deal with India. Canadian officials say the ball is now in India’s court to indicate next steps.
There were other curious conversations on the sidelines of this summit.
Cameras recording Obama and Harper walking in picked up snippets of a conversation, with Obama telling Harper: “We can’t get some of the other stuff done unless folks get a better sense of what you guys are doing.” A few moments later, Obama said: “I thought I’d mention that.”
“K, appreciate that,” replied Harper.
Harper press secretary Carl Vallée declined to clarify what the remarks were about, saying only that the two leaders talked about a wide range of issues and had “a good conversation” but that it was private.
At the end of a first day of working sessions, G20 leaders issued a call to action on Ebola, urging countries who have not yet contributed to send more money, personnel and medical supplies to the fight against the outbreak in West Africa.