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Tue Feb 7, 2012, 03:13 PM

Kremlin's Tough Top Diplomat, Russian Foreign Minister Is Nobody's Fool [View all]

By Benjamin Bidder in Moscow

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov knows how to deliver a "nyet" in all kinds of different ways. He can be taciturn and stubborn, as he was when Moscow expressed its opposition to the NATO missile shield in Europe, and he can be angry, as when he delivered the Kremlin's veto of the United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria at the weekend. (The West's comments, he said, were "bordering on hysteria". But he is also capable of delivering a "nyet" with a wink, as he did when he, a chain smoker, resisted then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's proposal to ban smoking at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Sometimes, however, Lavrov just can't say no. In early February, for example, after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had just made an unsuccessful telephone call to Lavrov over the Syria conflict, the Russian foreign minister paid a visit to the tiny island nation of Fiji in the South Pacific. The trip was prompted by Russia's desire to expand its influence in Asia and Oceania. Hence Lavrov did not complain when his hosts dressed him in a Hawaiian-style shirt and placed a colorful garland around his neck. At his feet, they carried out traditional rituals that required bare torsos and loud shouting. For a man who is usually the personification of Russia's foreign policy self-confidence, his smile, framed by a face covered in sweat, was unusually timid.

On Tuesday, Moscow's top diplomat was on a significantly more sensitive mission to Syria. He was greeted by pro-government crowds on arrival in Damascus, who lined the streets of the capital and waved Russian flags as the foreign minister's motorcade passed.

During talks in Damascus with Bashar Assad, Lavrov called on the Syrian president to do what was needed to ensure peace in the country. "Every leader of every country must be aware of his share of responsibility." Lavrov told Assad at the meeting in Damascus, according to state-run news agency RIA. "You are aware of yours." The foreign minister added: "It's in our interests that the Arab peoples live in peace and harmony."



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