Relaxed President begins long farewell

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The Independent Online

This was the fourth of the Valdai Club meetings, and – for all Mr Putin's determination to work to the very end, it surely marked the start of a long farewell.

Of the three sessions I have attended, this was Vladimir Putin at his most relaxed. Perhaps because he was on holiday, perhaps because he was tired after the Apec summit in Australia and two days of travelling in Russian, or perhaps because he is demob happy. He seemed more spontaneous, slower to anger and less obsessed with statistical exactitude.

As he walked into the vast prefab shed adapted to be a press centre on the model of White House press operations, he was mobbed by television cameras.

Dressed in a light grey suit that seemed a little too big, a blue shirt and blue-green tie, he shook hands down the line we had been told to form, and led us to the hall next door. It was decked out in pale blue, with a golden Russian crest on the wall behind his seat.

Dinner was served; a venison starter, wine, vodka and water at every place, and name badges in English letters facing us; cyrillic letters facing Mr Putin and his single aide. In lieu of an opening statement, he lamented – in a lightly mocking tone – that the gatherings had been going on for four years, and still people abroad retained their old stereotypes of Russia.

It was straight into questions. As always, he addressed himself to the task in hand, like a conscientious pupil. When one disappointed questioner sent a note to object that he had not replied to the third element of his question, he turned back to it, as though rebuked.

There was none of the intemperate fist-shaking of earlier meetings. When a questioner offered to speak more slowly to give him time to eat, he said he had not come with any expectation of eating. When someone else proposed a toast – to Sochi's successful bid for the 2014 winter Olympics – he genially raised his vodka glass (which appeared to be empty), and immediately asked for the next question.

After two and a half hours, with the "trio of chocolate" mostly consumed, the tea and coffee distributed, he proposed adjourning to the residence and strode to a solid-looking house, up the stairs, past a solarium and out onto the terrace overlooking the crashing waves of the Black Sea. As the sun set, he shook more hands, said goodbye – and nothing about meeting again.