The weather was gloomy in Kiev on October 20, 2005. A light rain fell on the windowsill of the President of the Republic’s reception hall. On one side of the long white table sat President Viktor Yushchenko along with his Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, the head of the delegation of the Ukrainian Supreme Council to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Oleg Zarubinsky, the interpreter and the minutes-taker. Opposite them were seated the NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation - the President, Pierre Lellouche, two Vice-presidents, Vahit Erdem from Turkey and the Slovak Jozef Balaz, the general secretary Simon Lunn, his deputy David Hobbs and Svetlana, the Ukrainian responsible in the Parliamentary Assembly for relations with Ukraine. Viktor Yushchenko signed a few documents which his personal secretary had laid before him, and, looking up, gave his visitors a friendly smile.
“Excuse me for being late, discussions with the Georgian Prime Minister Mrs. Nino Burjanadze took longer than anticipated. I can assure you that we will have ample time for our meeting.” And he favoured them with another small smile. It seemed that his facial muscles were somehow strained, as if from pain. His ashen face was still marked by the effects of the reported poisoning attempt, and his features seemed stiff, wooden. Despite his scars Viktor Andrejewitsch was an elegant man in his black suit with Bordeaux tie and handkerchief. His deformed ear was covered by the well-styled greying hair around his temples.
“Mrs. Burjanadze is a charming woman so we understand your predicament,” commented Pierre Lellouche with the smile that opened doors for the Frenchmen that were closed before many. He informed the President of the arrival of the NATO fleet in Sebastopol, and thanked the Ukrainian side for its gracious welcome. President Yushchenko was evidently in good form. He spoke deliberately, using clear argumentation peppered with humour. Lellouche, Erdem, Lunn and Hobbs paid close attention to the words of the man who from a tribune in Kiev’s Independence Square headed the Orange Revolution during the winter of 2004.
Balaz sat as a man enchanted, but not by the President’s rhetoric. His head was full of images from August, 1968, when the streets of Bratislava were blocked by Soviet tanks. He felt that shiver of fear that overcame him whenever he recalled the concrete barriers of Check Point Charlie – the crossing between East and West Berlin. The images came and went through his head, but she remained, sitting opposite him. Balaz could not take his eyes off her. “Ukraine has an eminent interest in receiving as quickly as possible an invitation to negotiations on entry to NATO. We are expecting that this will come at the NATO summit in Vilnius. We would welcome the support of the Parliamentary Assembly for our position.” He stopped and took a sip of his tea. While Lellouche answered at length, Balaz stared as if hypnotized at the minutes-taker sitting across the table from him. She looked a well-preserved fifty with her chestnut rinse, a still-attractive woman. He followed her hand as it copied a shorthand version of the debate, and he had the impression that she was writing unessential words just so that she would not have to raise her eyes from the page. When she did, he felt she was examining him, those green eyes fixing on him for a heartbeat before again being lowered to her work.
The discussions were coming to a close . She was still giving him looks from those green eyes, then looking away. The President had allotted them twenty minutes more than originally planned, and. Lellouche thanked him for his consideration. A photographer came into the room to take the customary shots of Viktor Yushchenko and his guests. Except for the interpreter, his aides made their way to the door. Yushcheenko called the minutes-taker back.
“Alexandra Josiphovna,” he said, and whispered something to her before she left the room. Balaz clenched his teeth. The photographer finished his job, the visitors again wished Yushchenko all the best, and the room emptied.
The head of protocol accompanied them to the entrance of the Presidential Palace, where they retrieved their coats from the cloakroom. Passing the Palace ceremonial guard outside, Balaz instinctively looked around. From beside one of the massive marble columns on the first floor he felt the unforgettable turquoise eyes of the minutes-taker looking down at him. When their glances met, he was sure she was smiling. Then she turned quickly away and retreated back onto the gallery.
The trip back to the hotel seemed to take forever. The service BMW had barely stopped before Baláž was dashing up the stairs. With shaking hands he rummaged in the side pocket of his attaché case among photographs and other mementos he held dear – a picture of his wife in her favourite light summer dress, another of his parents, one of his daughters Aniczka and Martuszka in front of a Christmas tree, and one other. It showed a young Soviet soldier and his mother. For a long moment Balaz studied it carefully. He reckoned the photo must be seventeen years old, in black and white, but he was sure nonetheless that he recognized those penetrating turquoise eyes. He leafed through a pile of papers on his desk until he found a packet distributed by the Ukrainian Supreme Council. It outlined the program for the visit and included the names of the Ukrainian delegation. The last name on the list was that of the President’s protocol assistant, Alexandra Josiphovna Gusewa. It was her.