Georgiy Mamedov’s diplomatic career was forged in some of the fiercest political fires of the Cold War.
As he prepares to depart Canada as the so-called dean of the country’s diplomatic corps after 11 years, it is as if he’s being re-baptized in those old Cold War flames all over again.
The sharp-accented, sardonic and often provocative Russian ambassador to Canada has become the target of Canada’s political and public disapproval of President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing unrest in eastern Ukraine caused by pro-Russian gunmen.
He’s been called on the carpet behind closed doors in recent months by top Foreign Affairs officials, bearing Canada’s official outrage on behalf of the Putin government. He was even heckled in public — some called him a liar — at a recent business luncheon in Toronto.
For some who say they know him better than others, none of this has knocked the 66-year-old Mamedov off his axis.
“Behind the Falstaffian exterior is a canny and shrewd diplomat who knows how to play the game. (More) importantly, he likes to play the game and he is very good at it,” said retired Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
Mamedov is expected to depart his post at the end of June after 11 years at the Russian embassy in Ottawa, easily twice the length of most diplomatic postings. Unlike most other governments, Russians favour long postings.
In Mamedov’s case, it made even more sense because is widely acknowledged as one of his country’s foremost experts on North American affairs.
Over the years, Mamedov has worked hard to build economic ties between Canada and Russia, in between finessing various flashpoints that periodically raised the ire of the current Harper government.
Those include a Russian submarine planting a flag on the North Pole seabed, accusations of Russian bombers flying too close to Canadian airspace and disgraced Canadian navy sub-lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, convicted of stealing and selling military secrets to Moscow.
As of late, Mamedov has become the Canadian face of a “regime” that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has personally branded a threat to world peace.
Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, recalled how Mamedov bore the brunt of some harsh criticism from his own government while the West was negotiating the end of the 1999 Kosovo crisis.
NATO had bombed the former Yugoslavia for 78 days, driving Russia’s ally in Serbia out of the predominantly ethnically Albanian province of Kosovo.
“He was constructive and resourceful and tough and faced down a lot of opposition inside Moscow to deliver the kind of deal Yeltsin could live with,” Heinbecker recalled. “I actually saw some of it.”
Heinbecker said he came to hold Mamedov in high regard for rising above that pressure.
“There were a lot of people in Moscow who thought this was abandoning the Serbs and letting NATO run wild. He was able to surmount that.”
Four years later, Mamedov began his diplomatic run in Ottawa.
“Mamedov played on various levels: Canada-Russia political, economic, social — people to people relations — as well as intellectual,” said Robertson.
“He also observed for Russian interests in the wider world especially reporting from Canada on U.S. affairs. We are a very good listening post.”
The son of a career diplomat, Mamedov began his own career more than 40 years ago, a doctorate in history on his resume, with a short one-year posting at the Soviet Union’s embassy in Washington. He returned in the 1970s for four more years that spanned his country’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
When the Soviet Union collapsed a decade later, Mamedov was at the director of his foreign ministry’s desk for Canada and the United States.
For the 12 years prior to his 2003 appointment to Ottawa, he served as Russia’s deputy ministry of foreign affairs.
“He came with deep knowledge of the Kremlin,” Robertson said, “after having cut his teeth on the most critical issues of the Cold War: nuclear non-proliferation, negotiating removal of weapons from Ukraine, and U.S.-Soviet relations.”
Mamedov’s fingerprints are on the Budapest Memorandums of 1994, which resonate today with the ongoing Ukraine crisis.
The agreement was between Ukraine, Russia, Britain and the U.S. It called for the removal of Ukraine’s nuclear stockpile in return for Russian recognition of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty — something the West now accuses Putin of leaving in tatters.