When I first started delving into the depths of diplomacy, I was intrigued by the protocol involved. It beggars belief. I’m all for manners and etiquette and enjoy a formal function, but after numerous role-playing dinners for new diplomats brushing up on their protocol and etiquette skills, I began to question the seriousness of it all.
Placing my cutlery on the table exactly one-thumb measure from the edge became a fixation. Checking that my various wine and water glasses are in the correct order is a ritual. And if I were a protocol officer, I’m sure I’d have many sleepless nights over seating plans and last-minute cancellations. I’ve heard tell of the UK sitting in one UN meeting as Great Britain to avoid having to sit between the USA and the then USSR, as country representatives were seated alphabetically.
The order of precedence fascinates me. Prior to the Vienna Congress in 1815, whenever diplomats from different countries got together, chaos ensued. Who would sit beside whom? Who was the most important in the room? Who drew the short straw and got the seat beside the one no one else wanted to sit beside? Such was the consternation that they finally sat down and agreed on an order of precedence, an agreement later enshrined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1861. The order of precedence is still invoked for formal dinners, public ceremonies, and other national celebrations to avoid favouritism.
According to the Gospel that is Wikipedia, there are 82 embassies in Hungary, so 82 heads of mission, or ambassadors, which form the diplomatic corps. They are ranked in order of when they presented their credentials (i.e., a letter from the head of the sending state to the President of Hungary, asking him to accept the ambassador and accord them due credence), so the longest-serving ambassador in the country takes precedence over all the others. But there’s an exception: the Papal Nuncio. He scoots to the top of the list in Catholic countries, and ranks first, even if he’s the latest arrival.
As I write, Vladimir Putin is in town. It’s Tuesday. He arrived mid-afternoon and is leaving later tonight after various meetings, a laying of wreaths, and one public appearance. The inner city has been closed down since noon and was due to reopen at 9pm but apparently everything is running about three hours late. Public transport has been disrupted. Traffic has been diverted. Anyone living or working within spitting distance of his itinerary has made sure that they’re carrying proof of where they live or work. Going out for an early lunch and then not being let back into the office because you can’t prove you work there is something that usually happens where there are film crews in town and walking out of your front door could mean walking on to the set of a Hollywood movie. But this is real life.
The fuss made is usually determined by whether it’s a state visit, an official visit, or a working visit and also probably has a lot to do with the degree of risk involved. Angela Merkel’s visit earlier in the month didn’t warrant nearly as much disruption, so the level of attention accorded to Mr Putin could say more about his notoriety than his prestige or the entourage, 8 planes, and 30 cars he brought with him. Who knows? I’m just glad I wasn’t waiting out in the cold for a glimpse of the man himself up at the Presidential Palace. And yet a part of me would have liked to have seen him in real life – just to see what all the fuss was about.
First published in the Budapest Times 20 February 2015