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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 August 2018

Helsinki takes relaxed view of summit drama

Finnish capital takes its moment in the global spotlight in good cheer

People watch as the US President Donald Trump arrives to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at Finland's Presidential Palace in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
People watch as the US President Donald Trump arrives to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at Finland's Presidential Palace in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

Finland’s pretty seaside capital has little need for barricades it seems.

Around the “ring of steel” thrown up for the summit between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, organisers had commandeered goods lorries and even fire engines to block the cobbled roads.

Even this effort was half-hearted, with policemen left to loiter in the wide gaps in the cordon.

Since the get-together was announced, the Finnish government has dusted off old summitry guide books to pull together a low-key but efficient hospitality programme.

At a lakeside conference centre, officials broadcast the World Cup on a big screen on Sunday night.

Since the local TV channel commentary would not be understood by the guests, a bit of improvisation was necessary. The sound was turned down and BBC radio commentary pumped through the speakers instead.

Despite the summer tradition of Helsinki’s residents heading for countryside villas for the duration, thousands lined the route to see the US and Russian presidents arrive on Monday.

Anti-Trump protests in the Finnish capital were much less fierce than those seen during the US president's visit to London days earlier. Ints Kalnins / Reuters
Anti-Trump protests in the Finnish capital were much less fierce than those seen during the US president's visit to London days earlier. Ints Kalnins / Reuters

The assembled crowd was a lot better humoured than the seething mobs that protested against Mr Trump in London a few days earlier. Many ate ice creams and chatted excitedly.

“People in Finland are not used to this kind of event, so it's making them curious,” said local resident Elfadii Mustapha. “We see our president and his wife in the markets. With these two men, Putin and Trump, who knows what they will decide. We couldn’t miss it."

A small group of anti-Trump protesters wearing masks of the president’s unmistakeable head banged drums and shouted slogans to resist the US leader. Otherwise there was little of the insulting iconography to match the grotesque inflatable Trump baby that hovered in London’s parliament square.

Mr Trump had his supporters, including a group of gym-ready men in neatly ironed black shirts. They carried banners: “God Bless, President Trump.”

Donald Trump also had some demonstrations of support in Helsinki. Ints Kalnins /Reuters
Donald Trump also had some demonstrations of support in Helsinki. Ints Kalnins /Reuters

The summit theatrics were easy to read as two macho leaders sizing each other up. President Putin arrived on his plane an hour late. The Russians had brought the new domestically-built presidential limousine to balance the inevitable fascination with The Beast, the Cadillac used by US presidents.

President Trump refused to leave his lodge until the Russian leader was confirmed in the harbourside Finnish presidential palace.

Body-language watchers said Mr Trump and Mr Putin resembled prize fighters as they met. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
Body-language watchers said Mr Trump and Mr Putin resembled prize fighters as they met. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

Once inside the two men sat warily, giving welcome statements that gave little away. The body language experts concluded the pair resembled prize-fighters seeking to assert superiority.

Back on the streets another protester had an alternative view on her T-shirt: a double-headed eagle with Mr Trump and Mr Putin on either side.

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Read more:

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What happens in Helsinki matters, especially to America’s long-term allies

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