The decision to hold the July 15-17 Group of Eight (G8) summit in St. Petersburg was meant to symbolize Russia's full integration into the club of the world's richest industrialized democracies. Instead, with U.S.-Russian relations at their lowest ebb since the collapse of the Soviet Union, mostly due to the Kremlin's rollback of democracy and its use of energy as a tool for foreign policy, a number of experts and politicians have said that Russia is not a suitable host for such a privileged club. Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to shift the focus away from his domestic policies and toward issues such as energy security, infectious diseases, and global education. If the recent pre-meeting of the G8 foreign ministers is any indication, a number of external conflicts will also be on the agenda, including the Iran nuclear case, North Korea's missile tests, and the escalating conflict in the Middle East.
What are the main issues topping this year’s agenda?
- Energy security. Amid escalating energy prices, G8 members are hoping to hammer out an agreement that calls for transparent and predictable national energy policies, encourages competition, improves the investment environment for developing energy-related projects, and increases access to energy markets in the post-Soviet region. Although Russia holds the world's largest reserves of natural gas and remains the second-largest exporter of oil, it holds different views from the West on what energy security means, writes Stuart McMillan of the University of Canterbury in the National Business Review. "Russia wants to achieve security of demand," he says. "The others in the group want security of supply." The Kremlin recently came under criticism from U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney for using its energy reserves as "tools of intimidation and blackmail." In January, Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled natural gas behemoth, cut off supplies to Ukraine after ratcheting up gas prices by 400 percent and curbing its Soviet-era subsidies. The episode sent shockwaves through Europe—where energy demand is expected to double between 2000 and 2030, according to theEconomist—as European leaders scrambled to find alternative and more reliable energy sources. "What really needs to be done is to step back from the issue and say, 'What do we need to do to develop a cooperative approach to the exploitation of gas and oil in the post-Soviet space?'" says Robert Legvold, an expert on Russia at Columbia University.
The two countervailing forces, Legvold says, are risk aversion by the Europeans, who are ever distrustful of Russia as a reliable energy partner, and the Kremlin's monopolistic tendencies, as highlighted by its heavy-handed approach to erecting pipelines and cutting gas subsidies to its former subjects. Energy also needs to be used more efficiently. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Sestanovich recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that if Russia used its vast reserves of natural gas as efficiently as Canada, it would save three times the amount it exports to Europe. "Russia is not just the world's greatest energy producer," he said. "It's the world's greatest energy waster."
- Iran. Negotiations aimed at suspending Iran's uranium-enrichment program remain at a standstill, with the United States and the EU-3—Britain, France, and Germany—breaking with Russia and China on the issue of imposing an international sanctions regime against Tehran. The Kremlin has played down differences between itself and the EU-3 on this issue. Legvold says "the popular attitude in the United States is the Russians are willing to go along with us for basically venal reasons: They want to sell arms and cut energy deals [with Tehran]." More recently, Moscow proposed a dual-enrichment deal that would allow Iran to continue its nuclear program but with fuel enriched by Russian scientists on Russian soil. Philip Kazin, research director of the Baltic Research Center, a St. Petersburg-based think tank, says "Russia will be trying to play a mediating role," though it will not support sanctions that will not work. Iran says it will not reply to the package of incentives proposed by the EU-3 until August.
- Trade. Russia sought—unsuccessfully—to secure its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) ahead of the upcoming G8 Summit. Its main roadblock remains the United States, which has objected to Russia's entry over concerns of intellectual property piracy and banking regulations (specifically its demands for Russia to allow foreign banks to open branches without using Russian subsidiaries). "Russia has not decided internally if it's willing to go into the WTO on terms which are allowed now," Kazin says. Russia, which recently made the ruble a fully convertible currency, said it will not abide by the trade rules of the WTO, which it has voluntarily adopted, if not admitted into the trade club. "Russians are saying, 'We're not going to give anymore,'" Legvold says. Some experts hope the G8 Summit can inject some energy into the stalled Doha talks, which have broken down over disagreements on agricultural concessions.
Will Russian democratization be on the G8’s agenda?
Yes. Russia has moved in a far more illiberal direction, "something the West should be concerned about," Legvold says. "But whether it should move to the top of the agenda is another matter." He says it is "not just ineffective but counterproductive" if only a few U.S. senators, such as Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) or John McCain (R-AZ), harp against Russia's rollback of democracy. "Western leaders must disabuse themselves of the notion that by preaching values one can actually plant them," writes Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs. "Russia will continue to change, but at its own pace." U.S. leaders accuse the Kremlin of shrinking Russia's political space by consolidating power and wealth in the hands of the so-called siloviki, curbing the independence of the media, and clamping down on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—Putin opposes the foreign funding of domestic NGOs involved in political activity. "What opposition remains seems to do so only at the whim of the president," according to a recent Freedom House report. Some U.S. leaders had called on President Bush to boycott the G8 Summit to protest Russia's rollback of democracy. Yet many Russians dispute the Western-held notion that Putin's Russia is a more authoritarian place than it was previously. "I don't think there was ever democracy here in the 1990s," Kazin says. "There was oligarchic capitalism, very crude, very jungle-like. The situation now is not less democratic [than before] because it was never democratic."
What other issues will the G8 address?
- WMD proliferation. Russia published a "white paper" on this subject ahead of the G8 conference. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the issue "one of the most serious threats of modern times" but criticized the United States, albeit indirectly, for politicizing the issue, seeking to weaponize outer space, and thwarting efforts to strengthen the international biological weapons treaty. Likewise, some Western critics accuse Russia of undermining nonproliferation efforts by trading nuclear technology with Iran. In 2002, the first year of Russia's membership, G8 members pledged to give $20 billion over the next decade to dispose of old stocks of Soviet-era nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Outside of the G8, Russia is looking to replace the START agreement, signed between the Americans and Soviets in 1991 to limit the number of nuclear warheads but set to expire in 2009, with a new weapons treaty.
- North Korea. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso has called for a joint statement from the G8 that sends a "resolute message" to Pyongyang and condemns its recent missile tests. Russia, which keeps friendly ties with North Korea, is unlikely to favor any UN resolution calling for sanctions. Further, "the power that counts the most [on this issue] is not in the G8: China," Legvold says.
- Environment. Issues like climate change and global warming, which were taken up at last year's G8 summit, are expected to be sidetracked this year, experts say. "I don't think this year there's going to be any particular emphasis on climate," Benito Mueller of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies told Greenwire. "I would be very positively surprised if there were." That said, environmentalist leaders met with President Putin in early July on the topic of shifting away from the use of fossil fuels, which cause climate change, to renewable and alternative energy sources. Greenpeace International Executive Director Gerd Leipold stated in a recent press release that Putin, despite ratifying the Kyoto Protocol in 2004, still harbors "doubts about the science of climate change."
- Poverty relief. This subject, which dominated last year's agenda in Gleneagles, Scotland, is expected this year to take a backseat to energy security, experts predict. President Putin, speaking recently at a conference of charities, scolded G8 leaders for failing to meet last year's commitments of aid—roughly $50 billion per year—to developing countries. Most experts say that poverty relief will be on the agenda, but do not expect any new major commitments on development aid.
- Pandemic control. The recent threat of an influenza pandemic has renewed emphasis on the need for "as close as possible to universal access" for AIDS treatment by 2010, something agreed to in principle at last year's summit. G8 members, according to their joint statement, also recognize the threat diseases like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis play in slowing economic development and undermining security, particularly in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. "In particular, [the statement] calls upon the G8 leaders to appreciate the desperate state of disease surveillance and response capacity worldwide, not only for flu but all infectious diseases," says CFR Senior Fellow for Global Health Laurie Garrett. Health experts have also called on the G8 to address the shortfall of healthcare workers as well as develop national plans to identify and respond to global pandemics.
What is the G8 conference expected to accomplish?
Some experts say these summits are little more than pomp and ceremony and that many of the accomplishments made are less tangible than symbolic. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Sestanovich, writing in the Washington Post, calls it "an annual fantasy camp of candlelit, head-table diplomacy," while others point out that G8 members have often failed to deliver on the agreements made at past summits. According to DATA, a poverty-relief organization founded by the Irish rock star Bono, G8 members collectively are $2 billion short on their pledge to double aid to Africa made at last year's summit. Nor is the G-8 summit likely to reverse Russia's course toward what Legvold calls "half-baked authoritarianism" and what the Financial Times labels a "managed democracy." Still, experts expect some small breakthroughs, including confidence building measures on energy security and increased dialogue on energy cooperation.