Monday 16 December 2019

Just plane rude: the day Boris Yeltsin 'overslept'

Russian President Boris Yeltsin's shambolic visit here 20 years ago was a sign of things to come

Albert Reynolds (right) stands at the foot of steps leading to Russian President Boris Yeltsin's plane at Shannon airport in Ireland September 30, 1994
Albert Reynolds (right) stands at the foot of steps leading to Russian President Boris Yeltsin's plane at Shannon airport in Ireland September 30, 1994
Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin

Damian Corless

It was to be a red letter day in the distinguished political career of Albert Reynolds, but it turned out to be one of abject humiliation as images of a red-faced Taoiseach beamed around the globe.

Twenty years ago, on September 30, 1994,the Irish leader had dashed back from Australia to throw a reception for Russian President Boris Yeltsin at Shannon Airport. Yeltsin had agreed to a brief stopover on Irish soil on his way home from the US to Moscow. The welcoming committee included the Taoiseach, two Ministers, a gaggle of TDs, an Army guard of honour, a military band and a delegation from the Russian Embassy in Dublin. A lavish bite to eat had been laid on at nearby Drumoland Castle.

When word came down from the control tower that Yeltsin's Aeroflot flight was minutes from touchdown, the dignitaries assembled at the red carpet on the runway. The mood was upbeat, positive and not a little excited. Relations between the West and Russia had never been better, and even if it was only for a couple of hours, it felt as if Ireland was playing a role in the unfolding of a new phase in world history.

The Iron Curtain had come down on the Soviet Union in the last days of 1991, lowered by the friendly, rational, likeable, trustworthy Mikhail Gorbachev who had brought the Cold War to an end and the promise of peace in our times.

In those heady times of dizzying change, this peaceful redrawing of the world map almost seemed too good to be true. And in the few months and years that followed, Yeltsin's Irish visit that would indeed turn out to be the case. The pendulum swing started by Gorbachev would be stopped by his successor, who would send it swinging back towards old-style Soviet habits.

That successor was Boris Yeltsin, and the Irish delegation awaiting his arrival at Shannon Airport were already on notice to expect the unexpected from a man who had established a reputation as a loud, drunken, boorish loose-cannon. Only a month earlier at a ceremony in Berlin to mark the withdrawal of Russian troops from Germany, he stumbled after a champagne lunch, grabbed a baton to clownishly conduct an orchestra, and joined young women dancers on stage, caterwauling into a mike.

He was already prone to shooting from the hip with diplomatic insults and threats that caused his press people to jump in with speedy retractions.

At Shannon, long after the scheduled landing time, the dignitaries waited, and waited, and waited, while Yeltsin's aircraft circled inexplicably above. After a full hour it finally landed, only to just sit on the runway, doors still closed, for a further 15 minutes.

When the doors did finally open, Russians from the plane and Irish officials hurried into a hushed huddle. When an air hostess was eventually dispatched to the aircraft with the bouquet that Kathleen Reynolds was supposed to present to Yeltsin, the penny dropped with all present. The Russian President was staying put. Years later Albert Reynolds recalled: "I had come direct from Australia, all night and the whole morning. I was hoping he would get off quick. I offered to go up on the flight to see him because I was told he was still asleep. I wasn't told he had a few too many. It was up to yourself to read between the lines if you wanted to."

The assembled world's media didn't hesitate to read between the lines, firing out stories that the Russian President, too drunk to negotiate a flight of steps, had "snubbed" Ireland's Prime Minister. Reynolds put on a brave face, saying: "I completely understand. Mr Yeltsin was acting on the orders of doctors who said it would be better for him not to get off the plane. When a man is ill, a man is ill."

Arriving back in Moscow, Yeltsin toughed it out, spinning the line: "I feel excellent. I can tell you honestly, I just overslept. The security services did not let in the people who were due to wake me - of course I will sort things out and punish them."

The parallels with the murderous dictator Stalin were probably unintended, but they were glaring. In 1953 Stalin died of a seizure in his bed, while the doctors who might have saved him cowered outside the door, too fearful to enter without his express permission.

In 2006, the year before he died, Yeltsin returned to the West of Ireland for some shark fishing and a visit to the Cliffs of Moher. By then, his legacy was set, as the pendulum had swung firmly back to the old Stalinist values of having a ruthless strong-man in the Kremlin, running a State characterised by a callous disregard for personal, political and press freedoms.

In the two years before his Shannon no-show, Yeltsin had given away the vast wealth that rightfully belonged to the Russian people in the form of vast oil and gas reserves. The beneficiaries of these unimaginable riches were a tiny cabal of shady hangers-on who would become known as the Oiligarchs. In gratitude, his newly-enriched friends bribed, connived, threatened and successfully bought him re-election in 1996. Like earlier generations of Soviet leaders Yeltsin clung on to power through years of ill health and failing mental capacity.

He retained the unerring ability to make a show of himself however. When Pope John Paul II attempted to end a joint event, he told the Pontiff to sit down, saying: "Holy Father, we haven't finished yet."

His parting gift to his people and the world was to hand-pick the repressive Vladimir Putin as his successor. To Ireland he bequeathed "Circling Over Shannon", as a new companion to stocious, langered, plastered and rat-arsed.

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