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torek, 15 junija, 2021

Historical dinners

by dr. Dimitrij Rupel

What shall a man do during an epidemic? One possibility is to write books. By the end of the epidemic, I may will have completed a book on history, the country, and diplomacy aimed at students and, above all, the curious public. As I was writing about what had been happening to Slovenian diplomats thirty years ago, I remembered a conversation with former British Foreign Secretary and President of the Hague Conference Peter Carrington. One day (when he had already given up on an agreement among the Yugoslav republics) he asked me who I would rather go to dinner with: “Tudjman or Milosević?” Before I could answer, he started laughing and said, “Admit that Milosević is funner.” As I recall this conversation, I find that today’s diplomacy compared to the former is no longer – to use Carrington’s word – fun.  Today’s diplomats send each other “emails” and “texts”, often by phone, and more and more – especially during the epidemic – talk on “Zoom” or “Skype”. Today, it is even possible to graduate or even get a doctorate “online”.

When we list the main tools from the diplomatic toolbox, we rarely talk about state and diplomatic dinners. To most statesmen and diplomats, dinners seem a matter of cuisine and protocol. Sometimes they are bothered by inappropriate, ambiguous or undeserved seating at the table, they often complain about the choice of food and drinks… but they mostly consider dinners as some sort of side events in the shadow of important bilateral or multilateral meetings, negotiations, conferences or congresses. Many people underestimate dinners, even though fatal things often occur at or during dinners. Nonetheless, it must be said that diplomats have always been very fond of attending banquets. Once upon a time, for example during the Vienna or Ljubljana congresses, social gatherings (theater performances, concerts, dances and receptions, not to mention dinners) were the first things on the agenda. The jingling of cutlery and the knocking of glasses were sweet music to diplomatic ears.

The first argument against underestimating dinners is the biblical Last Supper, from which important protocols and political rules were derived. Given the unfortunate number of participants at this dinner (Jesus and the 12 disciples), diplomats to this day avoid tables with thirteen people seated.

We have fairly accurate reports of dinners during World War II: with Stalin in the Kremlin and with the US presidents in the White House. One of the most interesting books on high-profile political talks, entitled Dinner at the White House, was written by a Slovenian-American writer Louis Adamič. In January 1942, Roosevelt and his wife invited the Adamičs to the White House because of his book Two-Way Passage, published in 1941, in which Adamič encouraged the American administration to intervene in the war and to take care of Europe, saying that this huge company should not be trusted only to the Englishmen. In addition to Roosevelt, Adamič also met Churchill at dinner (who did not like Adamič’s book) and interfered in the great American and British politics.

In addition to few other Yugoslavs, Tito, Kardelj and Đilas dined with Stalin, with only Đilas describing the three dinners in Encounters with Stalin (1962) in detail and vividly. Đilas’ first dinner with Stalin was in June 1944, ten days after the German attack on Drvar, where liquidation of Tito was attempted, and just before the Allies landed in Normandy; yet the dinner lasted more than six hours, until the morning. The second dinner (Đilas says “feast”) was in the autumn of 1944 after the Red Army entered Yugoslav territory; and the third in April 1945. All the conversations were long and very interesting, and included assessments of the national character of the allied and hostile nations, fraternal relations or unity among the Slavic people and – for example – the delicate issue of the Red Army violence upon entry into Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav interlocutors did not object to Stalin, they convinced him that there was Soviet power in Yugoslavia, and so on. All dinners at Stalin were accompanied by large amounts of alcohol, especially vodka. In his Memoirs, Kardelj mentions a meeting (not dinner!) With Stalin in November 1944, but his description is realistic and dry. In a conversation with Kardelj, Stalin (in order to satisfy the Britts) cheered for Šubašić, for the division of “fifty-fifty”, and made some not exactly flattering remarks about the Slovenes. Kardelj also describes a banquet hosted by Molotov, in which he speculates that the Soviet leadership is not perfectly unified and that some leaders dislike Stalin. Himself, he was largely infuriated by Stalin’s insistence on partisan cooperation with the royal government.

On 22 and 23 February 1992 – shortly after the international recognition by the European Union – Hans Dietrich Genscher paid an official visit to Ljubljana. For my favourite and for Slovenia deserving colleague I organised an official dinner – half as long as Đilas’ Moscow dinners – at Brdo. I described the dinner in The Secret of the State with the following words:

I will never forget the dinner at Brdo where Genscher shared ten or more anecdotes. This much laughter have probably not been heard in those rooms in a long time. The first series of jokes includes those that talk about Genscher himself. For example: Genscher is questioned before a parliamentary committee. He must swear in the beginning that he would tell the truth. He must then provide personal information. His profession? The best foreign minister of all time! After questioning, a friend who found out about this immodesty tells him off, saying that such boasting is not appropriate. “What can I do,” says Genscher, “I was under oath.”

In June 1992, a few months after the founding of the Slovenian state, three years after the Slovenian May Declaration and after the Beijing student demonstrations, I accompanied Prime Minister Drnovšek to the World Ecological Conference in Rio de Janeiro. Shortly after our arrival, we received an invitation from Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng to attend dinner at one of the hotels there. Li Peng was known for his (rather brutal) role in “cleansing” the Eternal Peace Square (Tiananmen) in June 1989. The time of the Chinese tragedy was, for me, a time of other worries. At that time, we in the Slovenian opposition signed the May Declaration, which preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall by six months. Drnovšek and I attended the Chinese dinner. At the entrance, Drnovšek and his Chinese colleague clarified some statistical issues: regarding the population of Slovenia and the gross domestic product per capita ($6,000). Li Peng stated, “Then you are rich.” The main attraction of the dinner was, of course, Fidel Castro, with whom I immediately agreed to establish diplomatic relations. Otherwise, Castro said several toasts during dinner. In one of them, he said he was looking for a way to reach China with his Soviet plane without having to fly over the territory of the “former Soviet Union”. Castro recommended to Drnovšek and me that we import more sugar produced in Cuba.

Throughout my diplomatic career, I attended many dinners and banquets, and I also organized some of them in the USA and Slovenia (Brdo, Jable, Podrožnik, Strmol, Vila Bled). Dinners at embassies are usually unpretentious in terms of clothing and are quite relaxed. Sometimes I had to wear a “black tie” in Washington as well as in Ljubljana (which is not a black tie, but a special white shirt, a black bow tie and a tuxedo); I supposedly wore a white tie only a few times in Vienna (dance at the Opera), in Miami (dance of the Red Cross) and in Washington D.C. Today, there is less and less time for diplomatic events of this kind, but also – due to accusations of extravagance – less and less courage. European dinners (of presidents or ministers) in Brussels are essentially political meetings. As a rule, there are no translations and detailed minutes on them, but they produce important decisions that could not have been reached in previous meetings without food and drink.

In 1999, Slovenian Presidents Kučan and Drnovšek hosted an important dinner in honour of US President Clinton at Brdo. It was a great event and toasts were pretty conventional. Two types of wine are usually offered at protocol dinners. Teran was offered as the red wine option, which – because Americans do not tolerate excessively dry (sour) wines – caused some misunderstandings. The US National Security Adviser complained that the wine was “corked”.

Dr. Dimitrij Rupel is a Slovenian sociologist, politician, diplomat, writer, playwright, editor and publicist. He was a dissident under the former communist regime. Immediately after the Slovenian independence, he became Foreign Minister. He was also Foreign Minister from 2004 to 2008.

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