Putin visits Britain and is accorded all royal pomp, but Chechen protesters question the circumstance

Click to follow
Indy Politics

When Vladimir Putin glides down the Mall in a horse-drawn carriage today, the Queen at his side and a royal salute ringing in his ears, the full pomp and ceremony of a British state visit will be on display.

The historic trip, the first by a Russian head of state since Tsar Nicholas I in 1843, will feature four days of state processions, guards of honour and sumptuous banquets.

Yet as the tributes flow to the President of the Russian Federation, small knots of protesters will attempt to remind the world that the former KGB chief is a man with "blood on his hands". Amnesty International and other human rights groups will hope to drown out the niceties of royal protocol by highlighting ongoing reports of extrajudicial execution, rape and torture by Russian forces in Chechnya.

The protesters suspect that Tony Blair and President George Bush made a grubby pact with the Russian leader in the wake of 11 September: turning a blind eye to events in the breakaway republic in return for support in tackling al-Qa'ida.

Mr Blair promised last week to raise the issue of Chechnya in his 30-minute meeting with President Putin this Thursday, but his critics claim that a fear of upsetting the Russian leader has prevented the condemnation he deserves.

This week's visit was planned last year, well before London fell out with Moscow over the Iraq war, and is seen by some as an excellent chance to boost economic and political links between the two countries.

Given that the Bolsheviks executed Tsar Nicholas II, a cousin of Queen Victoria, the Royal Family was loathe to host any state visits in the Soviet era. When the Queen met Nikita Khrushchev briefly during a political visit early in her reign, relations were decidedly uncordial. With true Cold War brusqueness, Khrushchev is reported to have said: "You don't like communism, we don't like capitalism. The only thing left is peaceful co-existence."

No such frostiness will be evident this week and the itinerary certainly spares no effort to impress the Russian leader, mingling tours of the sights with the finest royal grandeur Britain can still muster. When he steps off his Ilyushin presidential jet at Heathrow this afternoon, Mr Putin will be greeted by the Prince of Wales on behalf of the Queen. He will be swept by a limousine motorcade to Horseguard's Parade, where he and his wife, Lyudmilla, will receive a ceremonial welcome from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. After an inspection of the guard of honour, Mr Putin will join the Queen in a state carriage procession to Buckingham Palace, the sovereign's escort of the Household Cavalry trotting alongside. The British and Russian national anthems will be played as the procession arrives.

The end of the Soviet era will be celebrated in a short ceremony in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, during which the colour or banner of the Russian Life Guards Grenadier Regiment will be handed over to Mr Putin. The banner of the imperial regiment was hidden from the Bolsheviks by White Russians and finally smuggled to London in 1957.

After laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, the Russian leader will be treated tonight to a full state banquet in the palace's ballroom.

Tomorrow will see him travel to Edinburgh before returning to London for another banquet at the Guildhall in the City of London. Thursday will see the hard-headed business of the trip, with Mr Putin and Mr Blair opening the Russia-UK energy conference at Lancaster House. British companies such as BP and Shell are keen to extend their investment in Russia and the visit is set for a "substantial announcement" on energy.

Mr Putin will visit the Tower of London and St Paul's Cathedral before holding a working lunch with Mr Blair at Downing Street and a press conference, the only one of the trip. After hosting a return banquet for the Queen on Thursday, the Russians leave on Friday.

Critics will point out that Buckingham Palace has a long record of meeting and greeting leaders with a less-than-savoury reputation. Nicolai Ceausescu, the former dictator of Romania; President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and President Jiang Zemin of China have all taken tea with the Queen over the years.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International's UK director, said yesterday that it was time to hold to account the man who made his strongman reputation, and even became President, on the back of his actions in Chechnya. "The continuing conflict in the Chechen republic, now in its fourth year, has seen Russian security forces committing serious human rights violations and breaching international humanitarian law with almost total impunity," she said.

"If Putin's state visit to the UK heralds an increased ambition to participate in the international arena then Russia must first of all ensure justice and rights for all within Russia, including the Chechen republic, and tackle key issues such as racial intolerance, poor prison conditions and high rates of domestic violence throughout Russia. This must be at the heart of discussions between President Putin and Tony Blair in their 30-minute tête-à-tête on Thursday." For all the pomp, when Mr Putin waves from the Queen's carriage today, Ms Allen and others will be hoping that he catches sight of an event at the ICA on the Mall: a Human Rights Watch film on human rights abuses in Chechnya.

For Buckingham Palace, the trip may be a useful dress rehearsal. The next state visit is also likely to be marred by protests against the brutal, lawless actions of an overmighty state: Mr Bush arrives in October.

ETIQUETTE OF A STATE VISIT

The Queen acts as host to heads of state when they visit Britain formally. There are usually two state visits a year and invitations are sent on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Each visit lasts from a Tuesday to a Friday. The visitor stays at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle or the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. Highlights include a ceremonial welcome in Horseguard's Parade, a state carriage procession down the Mall, and a state banquet in the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. Foreign leaders stay in the Belgian suite at the palace. The visitor will meet the Prime Minister, other ministers and political leaders, diplomats and business leaders. One day is spent outside London or Edinburgh "visiting places or organisations of interest to the visitor so that they can see various aspects of British life", Buckingham Palace says. Events are tailored to the particular visitor. Mr Putin will visit the Soviet Second World War memorial in Southwark and the statue of Peter the Great in Deptford. Since 1952, there have been 94 state visits.

Comments