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One year on: Remembering Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin

Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin died in New York on February 20, 2017, a day before his 65th birthday

MOSCOW, February 20. /TASS/. Friends and colleagues of late Vitaly Churkin, who served as Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2006-2017 and died a year ago while performing his duties, gathered at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy on Tuesday to share their memories of Churkin’s life, work and unusual decisions he made as a diplomat.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, one of Churkin’s friends, stressed that he was a complex personality, a highly professional and intelligent diplomat, and at the same time, "a very lively person with a good sense of humor."

"While working in New York, he showcased his talents in the best possible way. He was loved as a human being and a professional diplomat even by those who did not agree with him on political issues or maybe agreed but could not say so openly given the position of their governments," the Russian top diplomat said.

Great personalities among us

Working at the United Nations New York headquarters is no picnic, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Pankin said. "I learned a lot working side by side with Vitaly Ivanovich as his deputy for five years," he noted. "In 2010-2014, one crisis followed another: the Arab Spring, the bombardment of Libya, the Syrian war, Yemen, Ukraine, Crimea, Donbass, unexpected coups in Africa. There was enough of everything," he added.

According to Pankin, his former chief always worked very hard, 24 hours a day. "Vitaly Ivanovich always insisted that I carry my cell phone with me at all times," he went on to say. "He always asked for advice - not only his deputies, but also youngsters, experts - trying to get to the core of a problem," the deputy foreign minister noted. "Easiness, smiles, gracefulness - this is what we saw watching Churkin giving TV interviews," he said.

"At the same time, the atmosphere we had to work in was far from perfect, this is why the head of the ‘smaller foreign ministry’ - which is what the mission to the UN is often called - could not afford to be rude. Instead, he always showed restraint and never stooped to making insulting remarks. He was a role model of a perfect diplomat," Pankin pointed out. "Great personalities live among us and go to ordinary schools. He was very fond of his family, friends and his work, this is what he dedicated his life to."

Nation’s heritage

Vitaly Churkin founded a new diplomatic genre based on free thinking and communication with the outside world, Chairman of the Russian Federation Council (upper house of parliament) Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev said. "Churkin was cited as an example," he said. "His creativity, his work and life turned to kind of a heritage thing for us young diplomats."

Chairman of the State Duma (lower house of parliament) Foreign Affairs Committee Leonid Slutsky, in turn, pointed out that no matter the pressure, the late Russian UN ambassador had always stayed on track. "He made the necessary arrangements so that we would not only perform our duty well but also achieve diplomatic victories," he said, adding that Churkin "trained dozens of people and this experience is not going anywhere."

Churkin’s door

The 1990s period, when Churkin served as Russian special presidential representative on resolving crises in former Yugoslavia, deserves special attention.

"Vitaly Ivanovich once called a meeting on the ceasefire and separation of field commanders at our embassy in Zagreb," Director of the Fourth European Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko said. "The parties were reluctant to sit to the negotiating table together but there was only one separation map, so the meeting was on the edge of failure. And then, Vitaly Ivanovich suddenly saw a door in one of the walls that had been covered by wallpaper. So he knocked down the door and said: ‘Put the table here.’ This is how he saved the meeting."

He sometimes had to face danger, particularly during talks in the Bosnian security zones amid NATO’s bombardments. "Once in Bosnia, our armored personnel carrier nearly fell into an abyss. Vitaly Ivanovich went out - the snow was up to his knees. An old Serbian soldier came to his help and said: ‘This is an omen, Mr. Churkin, you will live a long life and die in the line of duty.’ Unfortunately, only half of his prediction proved true," Botsan-Kharchenko added.

According to him, in 24 hours, Churkin managed to hold a Contact Group meeting in Geneva, then fly to the former Yugoslavia, after that address a press conference in Belgrade or Moscow and end the day presenting a report to the State Duma.

Botsan-Kharchenko was confident that there was a need to study the late diplomat’s experience as a mediator, as well as his peacemaking activities.

Grateful Serbians and Ossetians

An official from the Serbian embassy in Moscow stressed that the Serbian people "remember Vitaly Churkin with love and will never forget him."

South Ossetian Ambassador Znaur Gassiyev, in turn, said that people in South Ossetia had taken his death as a personal loss. "In August 2008 [during Georgia’s military aggression against South Ossetia - TASS], we all had our eyes on Russia, expecting a strong statement, and it was Vitaly Ivanovich who made it," the ambassador said.

Vitaly Churkin died on February 20, 2017, a day before his 65th birthday. He had been Russia’s UN ambassador since April 8, 2006, representing the country in the United Nations Security Council. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the ambassador died while on duty. President Vladimir Putin awarded Churkin with the Order of Courage posthumously.