PRAGUE — St. Petersburg is a great place in early summer, when the “White Nights” bathe the city’s imperial palaces and avenues. Small wonder, then, that Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to show off his hometown.

Three years ago, during the czarist capital’s 300th anniversary, Putin hosted some 40 heads of state, ranging from U.S. President George W. Bush and then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to Belarusian dictator Alexandar Lukashenka and Turkmenistan’s Saparmyrat Nyazov, who styles himself “Turkmenbashi,” the father of Turkmen. Human-rights activists questioned the wisdom of endorsing the leader of a growingly authoritarian Russia. Yet Putin managed simultaneously to celebrate his anti-Iraq war cooperation with Europe, have the United States swallow this, and be recognized in front of his local minions as a world leader.

This summer, St. Petersburg (dubbed by local wits “St. Putinsburg”) may see a repeat performance: Russia will preside over a G8 summit for the first time, despite increasing authoritarianism, the ongoing bloody war in Chechnya, and now support for Iran’s nuclear program.

Deflecting mounting criticism, Bush rejects appeals to boycott the summit. “I need to be in a position where I can sit down with him (Putin) and be very frank about our concerns,” Bush said in late March at Freedom House in Washington.

Is Bush wrong? The question of whether to meet with nasty but powerful people has dogged diplomacy since its inception, and both ends of the question have been argued endlessly — and inconclusively. So it is probably best to examine the merits of each case separately, looking to precedents and agendas for guidance.

What is now known as the G8 was launched in 1975 as an informal group of the United States, Europe’s Big Four — Britain, France, Germany, and Italy — and Japan, with Canada added as an afterthought. It expanded to include Russia in 1998 for political, not economic, reasons. Russia’s unhappy status as a democratizing, but still potentially threatening, former superpower, played a role, as did its huge energy reserves, which is why China, incomparably more powerful economically but politically beyond the pale, was never invited to join. Indeed, though supposedly grouping the world’s largest economies, the G8 now includes a country with an economy the size of Holland’s, even if it is still excluded from deliberations of the other members’ finance ministers.

In retrospect, Russian membership should probably be considered a mistake. Russia has stabilized under Putin, but it has become markedly less democratic. Its economy has boomed thanks to oil and gas exports, not to healthy market developments. The state still controls the economy as it sees fit, as the de facto renationalization of Yukos amply demonstrates.

On the other hand, the Kremlin has refrained from international adventurism, and rather consistently supported the U.S. in its “war on terror.” As European economies grew more dependent on Russian oil and gas, and the U.S. military in Central Asia on Russian acquiescence, reversing the decision to admit Russia to the G8 became politically unthinkable. The 2003 summit confirmed Russia’s privileged position. A repeat performance this summer would make it all but unshakable.

Has “being frank about our concerns,” the justification for hobnobbing with the likes of Putin, proven effective? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, although Russia has been backsliding since Putin took power in 2000, his policies might have been worse had he been ostracized. In any case, a U.S. boycott of the forthcoming summit would be a Russian triumph, as it would throw the West into disarray.

But there need to be limits to the West’s tolerance, particularly given the summit’s agenda, which features energy security, fighting disease, promoting education, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation. Is Russia a trustworthy partner in these areas?

Russia is, in fact, the main provider of energy insecurity in Europe. Its gas blackmail of Ukraine frightened the entire Continent, and its new Baltic pipeline to Germany has provoked howls of outrage from Poland and the Baltic states, which are angry at losing the economic and political dividends a land route gives them. They are also fearful that Russia will use the energy weapon against them in the future, once the new pipeline allows the Kremlin to do so without affecting Western Europe.

This made little impression on their German EU partners — unsurprisingly, since Schroeder now chairs the consortium that will build the pipeline. As former French Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy put it in 1981, when he refused to cancel a gas deal with the Soviet Union over the imposition of martial law in Poland, “Should the suffering of French people deprived of gas be added to the suffering of Polish people deprived of freedom?” Old habits die hard.

Russia’s record is equally bleak on other items on the summit’s agenda. It heads the list on the spread of preventable diseases — not only HIV, but tuberculosis, with 32,000 deaths last year alone — and its education standards are in severe decline. On terrorism, Russia was the first country to host an official Hamas delegation after the Palestinian elections, and it continues to crush Chechen terror and resistance with methods that would bring it to an international court, were it not a Security Council member. On nonproliferation, just ask the ayatollahs in Tehran.

Putin’s Russia is not a place for democratic leaders to hold a summit, especially after the paltry results of the last one. Nor does the summit’s agenda justify holding it there. While Putin’s policies could have been much worse — it is legitimate to give him credit where it is due — Russia should not be allowed to take the West for granted. Nothing would be gained by breaking with Russia and engaging in confrontation with it, but there is no reason not to respond to Realpolitik with Realpolitik.

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