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Respect to the point of humiliation: That's how important furniture and seating arrangements are at politicians' meetings

Putin’s table, Erdogan’s sofa: furniture is extremely important at political meetings. In the recent past there are signs of respect and humiliation.

Moscow – Of course, Vladimir Putin had something in mind. After all, Russia’s head of state will not have placed his French colleague Emmanuel Macron at the end of a seven-meter-long marble table because there was nothing free at the smaller tables in the house that February day.

Coincidences have no place in top diplomacy. Certainly not when it comes to explosive issues like war and peace in Ukraine. Rather, in the run-up to such a summit meeting, it is regulated what can be regulated somehow. This includes choosing the furniture.

Seating arrangements and furniture at meetings of politicians: pictures convey messages

For the host, this means asking oneself in good time: should someone be seated higher than the others? Or is an encounter at eye level recommended? Is it a matter of humiliating a guest, letting him sit on deep cushions where he has to look up to others?

Does it need a table? An elongated one, for example, that allows important visitors to be placed on the front side and less important ones to be pushed off to the side? Should the furniture radiate coolness, should the arrangement create distance? Or is it important to spread a feel-good atmosphere and enable closeness?

What seems to come from times when kings gathered the nobles of the empire around them, honored them or humiliated them, stems from sober calculation. Summit declarations, sometimes filed beyond recognition by diplomats, receive little public attention. Pictures from the summit attract more interest. Messages can be conveyed with them. At first glance they show people and furniture. On the second, they often tell of power and powerlessness.

Furniture causes political explosives: a round table instead of headboards as a compromise

At the most recent crisis meeting on Ukraine in Russia, Putin arranged for French President Macron to meet at eye level. However, this did not prevent the Russians from using a monstrous piece of furniture to illustrate the monstrous power that they enjoy. Or did he have something else in mind?

As Swiss ambassador, Tim Guldimann looked behind the scenes in Tehran and Berlin. As head of the OSCE peacekeeping mission in Chechnya, he was involved in the Moscow peace talks between then-head of state Boris Yeltsin and the acting president of the breakaway republic.

Ein Herr mittleren bis höheren Alters mit kurzen Haaren sitzt in einem Anzug gekleidet an einem Tisch, die Hände übereinandergelegt.


Former Switzerland ambassador Tim Guldimann also felt out of place.

Even then, the negotiating table provided topics for discussion, even fuel, says Guldimann. Yeltsin claimed the head end for himself, and the rebel leaders only wanted to concede the side. In the end, it was agreed to come together at a round table.

Erdogan and von der Leyen: Sofagate as an example of humiliation through furniture

Another former ambassador, the German Berndt von Staden, makes it clear in his memoirs that a demonstration of power and a feel-good atmosphere do not have to be mutually exclusive. He refers to the Oval Office, the official residence of the President of the USA.

Von Staden describes the room as “bright and graceful, two colonial-style chairs in front of the fireplace, a Swedish-blue carpet on the floor, behind it a curved wall of windows – like the study of a wealthy Virginia plantation owner”.

In April last year, Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan demonstrated that furniture can spread discontent. He staged a spectacle of humiliation in his palace. Victim was the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Sofagate: Erdogan humiliates von der Leyen with seating arrangements and furniture

An irritated “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa). She had to sit down on a sofa that was offset to one side. It was so low that she couldn’t help but look up at the two men. Nevertheless, the federal government did not comment on the incident called Sofagate.

And that’s probably how it was meant to be. After von der Leyen called on Turkey to “respect women’s rights”, the head of state apparently wanted to make it clear what he thought of it. A short time later things suddenly looked different: After the Sofagate in Turkey, Erdogan suddenly expressed his happiness about von der Leyen’s leadership role.

Erdogan will have known what it feels like to have to look up from low-lying cushions. His ambassador in Tel Aviv must have told him. After a Turkish television series that the Israelis found discrediting, the diplomat was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, where after a long wait he had to answer questions on a low sofa.

Furniture at politicians’ meetings in Moscow: What is the significance of Putin’s table?

But Tim Guldimann also had to endure being put down. You can still see his resentment about it today. It was with the British ambassador in Berlin, where the Swiss represented the interests of his country from 2010 to 2015. The host sat at the head of the table, with one of his employees seated opposite him. “I was assigned the side,” says Guldimann, “at first glance a banality, but not at second glance”.

The fact that the composition of the furniture is not due to chance does not mean that the intention behind it is always obvious. Tim Guldimann, who himself has already conducted crisis talks in Moscow, suspects that the choice of the XXL table at the most recent meeting was simply due to Putin’s fear of contracting Corona from Macron. (Axel Veiel)

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