Sceberras Trigona in Russia: diplomats irked over Trump-Putin summit ‘idea’

On MaltaToday’s front page yesterday: a plan to host Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Malta has not been viewed positively by diplomats  

The former Labour foreign minister Alex Sceberras Trigona has embarked on a diplomatic campaign to encourage the United States and Russian governments to hold a historic summit in Malta, for the 30th anniversary of the 1989 summit.

But his attempts at securing what would be a Trump-Putin summit in Malta in the first week of December, appear to have vexed the countries’ respective diplomats on the island.

In what a high-level diplomatic source described as a case of “entrepreneurial diplomacy”, Sceberras Trigona – who was appointed the Prime Minister’s special envoy to the World Trade Organisation – was said to have “aggressively” promoted the idea of securing a US-Russia summit in Malta.

Arguably, the summit would be a coup for both Sceberras Trigona personally as well as for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose profile would benefit from building on Malta’s soft power for neutrality and peace-making.

But the reality is that inside American and Russian diplomatic circles, the attempt has been viewed negatively.

“It is understandable that one commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Malta summit which effectively signalled the end of the Cold War, but what should be focused upon is that legacy – not the state of US-Russian relations at the present moment. That is something for both governments to decide upon, and presidents Trump and Putin have each other’s telephone numbers,” a high-level US government official told MaltaToday.

Indeed, Castille was informally made aware by diplomatic officials that Sceberras Trigona’s attempts at forcing through the meeting had to be “reined in”.

This newspaper understands that diplomats were told that the OPM had not sent Sceberras Trigona to Moscow. “If Sceberras Trigona is freelancing, it is unclear whether this has the Maltese government’s backing,” MaltaToday’s source said. “If anything, it should be foreign minister Carmelo Abela to take the lead on this.”

However, a government spokesperson yesterday confirmed that the PM’s envoy had set the meeting with Russia’s deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko a few weeks ago “with the aim of discussing ways of commemorating the 30th anniversary from the Bush-Gorbachev summit”.

Sceberras Trigona is known to have good contacts with the Russian diplomats. A government source with knowledge of the meeting said it was very possible that he discussed Malta’s refusal to grant overflight to Russian military assets as well, referring to the events of the week during which Malta refused clearance to Russian flights headed for Venezuela.

According to the Russian embassy in Malta, Sceberras Trigona and Grushko would have discussed “some topics of the international agenda… in particular, the situation in relations between Russia and the EU, the OSCE, the Council Europe.”

But staff in the Maltese foreign ministry seemed unaware that Sceberras Trigona last week travelled to Moscow to speak to Grushko – right in the week when Malta was refusing overflight permission to Russian military aircraft on its way to Syria.

The role of Sceberras Trigona as a WTO envoy who now is actively speaking to a Russian deputy foreign minister also raises the question of whether the Maltese government is short-circuiting diplomatic channels by employing envoys for informal talks.

Recently, the Maltese government defended the presence of an OPM employee and Labour party activist Neville Gafà, who faced allegations of posing as a diplomat to meet Libyan government ministers in Tripoli, and Haithem Tajouri, the leader of a militia group known as the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade.

Questions to the foreign ministry earlier last week were instantly directed to the Prime Minister’s office. “Please refer to the OPM as Alex Sceberras Trigona is the PM’s special envoy,” a spokesperson said.

Maltese ambassador to Russia, Pierre-Clive Agius, also directed this newspaper to the foreign ministry, when he was asked whether he had been included in Sceberras Trigona’s meeting with Grushko.

Sceberras Trigona refused to comment when asked what had been discussed with Grushko. Attempts to contact him throughout the week proved futile.

The importance of the 1989 Malta summit

Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami had been in power for just two years when Malta became the centre of world attention as the leaders of the two global superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, met aboard the Soviet cruiser SS Maxim Gorky off Marsaxlokk Harbour.

It was the end of the Cold War, sealed in the stormy weekend of 1-3 December 1989, and a full circle for history: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had met in Malta in February 1945, just ahead of their Yalta meeting with Joseph Stalin. It was then the end of World War II, but the start of what became known as the Cold War.

Both powers ruled the world through their spheres of influence, the theatres of war and the far reaches of outer space, and the soft power of athletics and sports, arts and intellectualism.

In 1989, supporters of Western liberalism proclaimed “the end of history”.

But Russia’s emergence from the Cold War was shocked by the problematic reforms of the Yeltsin era. Today in 2019, Russian revanchism is hungry for geopolitical assertion in Crimea and Syria.

George H. Bush had called the 1989 summit the start of “a lasting peace [that] began right here in Malta.” For Fenech Adami, it showcased Malta to the world “as a stable country, a nation that could be trusted”.

If a Trump-Putin meeting had to take place in Malta, Joseph Muscat would be placed at the heart of that international limelight, no doubt showcasing his administration’s model of economic growth and stability to critics both home and abroad.

Reply from OPM, 23 March 2019

In your article ‘Sceberras Trigona in Russia: Diplomats irked over Trump-Putin summit’, as distinguished in the official reply, which you ignored, Dr Sceberras Trigona is the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy besides being Malta’s Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization. As Special Envoy he keeps the Prime Minister constantly updated about his meetings including these. 

The claims that Dr Sceberras Trigona was “reined in” by Castille or that Castille was pressed to “rein him in” are completely rejected as unfounded. Strangely, even you don’t seem to be too sure which of these two spurious and also contradictory statements you yourself back.  

The meeting with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister was set a few weeks ago with the aim of discussing ways and means of commemorating the 30th anniversary from the Bush-Gorbachev summit in Malta in 1989 which ended the cold war. The topics already listed in the Russian Foreign Ministry communique’ were also discussed. You ignored this statement which was given to you on Saturday 20 April prior to publication while trying to peddle an unwarranted narrative about “aggressive diplomacy”.  

Undoubtedly therefore Dr Sceberras Trigona’s diplomatic mission was far from your alleged “entrepreneurial  diplomacy”. 

Kurt FarrugiaPM’s spokesperson 

Editorial Note: We reported the essential from the OPM’s reply, and note with satisfaction that Castille’s idea for a Trump-Putin summit in Malta has not been denied.

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