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Russia's 'Window on Europe' Shines for Fete

More than 40 world leaders, including Bush, are helping celebrate St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary amid parties and summits.

May 30, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Few cities have ever seen a birthday bash like the 300th anniversary celebration unfolding in this former imperial capital, founded by Peter the Great as Russia's "Window on Europe."

Most amazing is the guest list: heads of state or government from more than 40 countries, including President Bush, coming both to party and for a series of multilateral and bilateral summits that begin today.

The high-profile events aim to promote Russia's deepening ties with Western Europe and the United States as well as to boost President Vladimir V. Putin's already considerable popularity and power.

"There is no question that St. Petersburg is the symbol of the Westernized part of Russia's mentality," explained Yulia Demidenko, deputy director of the city's history museum. "Russia is looking for its own values that would be akin to European democracies', and St. Petersburg is the easiest place to demonstrate these political beliefs."

The festivities themselves reflect an open spirit.

The 10-day celebration, which runs through Sunday, has had lots of the offerings one might expect: outdoor evening concerts and ballet performances, with the sun up until nearly 11 p.m.; water shows on the Neva River featuring sailing ships, fireworks and laser displays; day-and-night hours at the famed Hermitage Museum in the former Winter Palace.

But among hundreds of events dedicated to the anniversary, there have also been plenty that were offbeat or just plain fun. There was the "White Nights 2003" music festival, an international dog show and the "300th Anniversary Bodybuilding Show." Still to come, on Sunday, are the "White Nights Chess Festival" and "Green Bunnyland," a carnival for children.

And then there was the Ice Cream Festival. Anna Moskvina, 18, a college dance student, showed up for the well-publicized "gala opening" with five classmates. When they heard up-tempo music blaring, they couldn't resist going into an impromptu precision dance routine on the blocked-off street.

Because the six had never danced to that particular music, their performance was an eye-catching mix of skill and missteps, but they clearly were having fun.

"We charged ourselves up with ice cream and danced. That's basically it," Moskvina said.

More than 100,000 people turned out on the banks of the Neva River to watch the first of the water shows. Many couldn't get close enough to see the ships, and the laser display was disappointing, perhaps because a strong wind blew away smoke meant to make the rays more visible.

Some St. Petersburg residents have complained that the birthday party is really for the big shots and that local people will just have to suffer through enormous traffic jams this weekend when all the dignitaries assemble.

But Moskvina and her friends were having none of that.

"It's cool," said Yulia Karavayeva, 17, another dancer, when asked her reaction to the horde of world leaders about to descend on the city. "It's very unusual that so many celebrities come to one place at one time."

Indeed, never before in Russia's history have so many presidents and prime ministers gathered in this country, organizers say. About $1.5 billion was spent to spruce up the city and many of its most historic buildings.

Some serious business is to be conducted. Bush is scheduled to meet one-on-one with Putin on Sunday, when they are expected to discuss topics ranging from strategic relations and economic ties to U.S. complaints about Russian assistance to Iran's nuclear program.

Putin shifted sharply toward a more pro-Western foreign policy after the Sept. 11 attacks, but ties between Washington and Moscow were strained this year by differences over Iraq. The hope on both sides is that the Bush-Putin summit will relegate those differences to the history books.

"Just getting the relationship back on track is message No. 1," said a senior U.S. diplomat who briefed reporters on condition he not be further identified.

Today, the Commonwealth of Independent States -- most of the countries of the former Soviet Union -- will hold a summit on a ship called the Silver Whisper. A Russia-European Union summit is to be held Saturday morning at the restored Konstantinovsky Palace, now known as the Palace of Congresses.

A number of leaders are expected to hold quick, bilateral summits on the sidelines of the main events. The first meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and new Chinese President Hu Jintao will be here.

Meeting this week with reporters from St. Petersburg to discuss the summit, Putin stressed the mutual advantages of stronger Russian-European ties.

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