King Harald V and Queen Sonja greeted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife Svetlana with all the pageantry accorded heads of state on Monday. Oslo’s Royal Palace was Medvedev’s first stop on his official visit to Norway.
A 21-gun salute was fired from the historic Akershus Fortress as Medvedev’s long motorcade from the airport rolled up Oslo’s main boulevard, Karl Johans Gate, heading for the palace. Banners advertising this week’s Oslo Freedom Forum along the route had been replaced overnight with the Russian and Norwegian flags, both red, white and blue.
The royal couple and Crown Princess Mette Marit were waiting outside the palace, along with members of the government, top state officials, the mayor of Oslo, school children waving flags and the Royal Guards. Overcast skies gave way to glimpses of sunshine, and the weekend’s chilly temperatures had warmed up considerably.
It was a perfect climax to months of planning as Norway received its first state visit from a Russian president since Boris Yeltsin visited Oslo in the mid-1990s. Former President Vladimir Putin has been in Oslo since, but not for a formal, official visit.
Medvedev, who’s said to speak good English unlike many of his precessors, seemed in good spirits as he went through all the formalities. The Royal Guards played his country’s national anthem first, followed by Norway’s, then there were inspections of the guards to be made, and greetings from the assembled government ministers and other officials.
Before Medvedev went into the palace with the king, he and his wife took time to shake hands and greet excited school children gathered near the palace wall and well-stocked with Russian and Norwegian flags. The Russian president seemed to genuinely enjoy himself, as he smiled and chatted with the crowd.
His program on Monday included lunch at the palace, meetings with the president of the Norwegian Parliament and with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. He was also due to visit monuments to fallen soldiers, both Norwegian and Russian, visit Norway’s Defense Museum and speak at a business seminar before dressing up for a formal banquet at the palace Monday evening. That would be followed by lunch at Akershus Fortress on Tuesday.
Medvedev was also expected to encounter some Chechnyan protesters during his stay in Oslo. His visit coincides with a human rights event called Oslo Freedom Forum, also backed by Norway’s foreign ministry and featuring human rights leaders from around the world.
Many of the Freedom Forum participants are staying at the same hotel, Grand, as members of Medvedev’s delegation and Forum leaders invited Medvedev to dialogue Monday morning. “Surely the Russian president has a packed schedule,” said Forum President Thor Halvorssen, “but given the odd coincidence that we are in the same city, both hosted by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, in the same hotel, and given his comments on ‘freedom being better than non-freedom,’ we hope he will meet us in the lobby for a few minutes to discuss the troubling human rights record of Russia and that of his predecessor Vladimir Putin.”
Among those taking part in the Forum in Oslo this week are Russian democracy activist and chess grand master Garry Kasparov and Chechen lawyer and activist Lidia Yusupova.