Leaders of the G8 countries — the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Russia — will gather in St. Petersburg over the weekend for their annual summit. In the beautiful city, which Emperor Peter the Great founded in 1703 as his “window on the West,” Russian President Vladimir Putin will preside over the event as chairman. The occasion will provide him with a chance to prove that Russia is a full-fledged member of the Group of Eight, which grew out of the G7 group of leading industrialized nations from the former Western bloc.
Achieving such lofty international status has been a dream for Russia since it first joined the summit in 1997, attending political discussions. In this year’s summit, Mr. Putin hopes to impress upon both domestic and international audiences the worthiness of Russia. But the meeting comes at a time when critics are looking at Russia with suspicious eyes due to its conduct at home and abroad.
Russia is now the world’s top producer of natural gas and No. 2 oil producer. Mr. Putin wants to use these energy resources as leverage to attain the economic and political goals he has set for Russia. Moscow typically demonstrated its strategy when it agreed in 2002 to form an “energy partnership” with the U.S. Earlier this year, Russia cut off its natural gas supply to Ukraine in an attempt to break a stalemate in price negotiations with the former Soviet republic. The forceful nature of this action raised international concerns. Subsequent cuts in energy deliveries to Western European countries, which rely on Russia for a considerable portion of their natural-gas supplies, made these nations aware of their vulnerability to Moscow. At the same time, however, Russia’s action backfired in that it damaged its reputation for reliability as a main energy supplier.
At home, Mr. Putin’s administration has clamped down on media freedoms. For example, Russia’s three main TV channels are state-controlled and refrain from criticizing the president. Self-censorship is frequent among newspapers and magazines. Internet Web sites critical of the president have been shuttered. Moscow has also strengthened its direct control over regional government administrations.
Mr. Putin is expected to make energy security the main topic of the summit with two purposes apparently in mind. One is to help G8 nations find ways to ensure a stable supply of energy. The other is to impress upon the world the fact that Russia is an energy superpower.
As part of his efforts to realize “Great Russia,” Mr. Putin wants to prove Russia’s worthiness of G8 membership in other areas as well. Earlier this month, Russia took measures to make the ruble fully convertible in the overseas market, traded under the same rule as dollars, euros, pounds and yen. In June, Russia signed an agreement with the Paris Club, an organization of 19 creditor nations, to move forward the repayment of $22 billion (equivalent to 2.6 trillion yen) of public debt. The rise in oil prices has made it possible for Russia to sign the agreement.
By shedding its debtor-nation status, which it had inherited from the Soviet Union, Russia hopes to prove that it is on a par with other G8 nations. Mr. Putin, already highly popular at home, also wants to further impress Russian citizens with these achievements and perhaps pave the way for a constitutional revision that would allow him to run for a third term in March 2008 (Russian presidents are now limited to two consecutive four-year terms). But Mr. Putin’s “managed democracy” — which places priority on the power of the state and gives less emphasis to the growth of civil society — differs from the democratic ideals held by other G8 leaders. Summit participants may be tempted to discuss the political style prevailing in Mr. Putin’s Russia.
As summit chairman, Mr. Putin must address other important issues as well, such as Iran’s nuclear development program and the test-firing of missiles by North Korea. G8 leaders are expected to spend considerable time on the North Korean issue. North Korea’s missile firings reportedly made Mr. Putin feel that Russia lost face because North Korea did not give it advanced notice of the missile launchings. Nonetheless, given its long ties with Pyongyang, which date back more than half a century, Moscow is opposed to sanctions against that country. While Russia upholds the principle of nuclear nonproliferation, its stance on Iran’s nuclear development program is more moderate than that of Western nations. Mr. Putin faces a difficult job in St. Petersburg. He must help the G8 leaders come up with effective measures toward North Korea and Iran. At the same time, he must take care to ensure the unity of G8 remains unimpaired.
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