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Russia Profile
July 21, 2006
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: G8 Summit: A Victory for Putin?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
Contributors: Andrei Lebedev, Sergei Shishkarev, Andrei Zagorski

The recently ended G8 summit in St. Petersburg did not turn into a shouting match between President Vladimir Putin and the rest of the G8 leaders over the state of Russia's democracy. Indeed, Putin played host with a very high level of statesmanship and hospitality.

He managed to get the G8 leaders to agree on a very positive statement on energy security that reflects Russia's concerns regarding access to energy markets and downstream assets in Europe and North America. It also guaranteed transparency and predictability in energy policies along with openness to foreign investment in upstream energy assets, as demanded by the West. The energy statement promoted nuclear power as a safe and efficient alternative to hydrocarbons, a change brought about by the bilateral meetings between Russia and the United States that served as a prequel to the summit.

These meetings also went relatively well, although an agreement on Russia's WTO accession was not reached, reportedly due to a disagreement over access of American meat to the Russian market. But Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush inaugurated two important nuclear initiatives -- a decision to begin negotiations on a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement and a multilateral plan to combat nuclear terrorism. The two leaders expressed different opinions of the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and Iran, but this was expected.

The escalating conflict between Israel and Hezbollah diverted some media attention away from the summit and forced a modification of its agenda, but again it was Putin who played an instrumental role in brokering a statement from the G8 on the Middle East, serving as moderator between the United States and Europe.

While a discussion of the state of democracy in Russia did not dominate the talks, the topic was evidently the subject of private conversations. Putin managed to turn the tables on Bush and the rest of the G8 leaders, however, in a comment that turned out to be the best joke of the summit � that Russia certainly did not want to have a democracy like the one in Iraq.

The summit was Putin's finest hour. He hosted the G8 leaders from a position of strength, promoted Russia�s international agenda and showcased his impressive organizational and media skills.

So what are the most important results of the G8 summit for Russia and its partners? Will the discussion on the state of Russia's democracy die down now? Has Russia improved its international image as a result of the meetings in St. Petersburg? How will the Kremlin play this domestically?

Andrei Zagorski, Associate Professor of MGIMO University, Moscow:

I followed the coverage of the summit in the European press, and I noticed (again) how different the agenda is in Russia compared with the other G8 countries.

While Moscow seems to be preoccupied with status issues (would its seat on the G8 be questioned or not?) and the minimization of the potential for controversy (would the Russian democracy debate die down or not?), other nations see the meeting through a different lens.

For them, it was important whether or not the meeting was able to send a strong signal to stop the fighting in the Middle East. They noted with regret that prior to the beginning of the summit, Russia and the United States had failed to agree on the terms of Russia�s accession to the WTO. They expected the G8 to provide an impetus to negotiations on further international trade liberalization � an issue of little concern to Russia, not yet a WTO member. They wanted to reach an agreement on the nuclear challenges posed by Iran and North Korea. The discussion of energy security was mainly associated with the question of whether or not prices for energy would go down after the meeting. There has also been a discussion of whether or not the G8 should eventually become a G13, as proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but opposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Of course, this was a "great summit," to quote French President Jacques Chirac. This qualification, however, has little to do with everyday politics.

It was important for Moscow to know that its position in the group is not questioned. As a successful host of a "great summit," Moscow is now an accepted part of the family.

Putin may have joked about Iraqi democracy, but this does not mean, however, that the discussion over democracy in Russia is going to fade away.

The St. Petersburg summit produced many nice pictures that served to contrast the usual coverage Russia in the international media, but a single event cannot change Russia�s entire image, which is much more complex.

Russia, indeed, can be proud of the excellent organization of its first G8 summit. By doing so, it has assisted the international community in the ongoing discussion of the urgent international issues. In this respect, this was a major international event for the Kremlin. There is no reason to believe, however, that it was a similarly major event for the other nations who will judge it on its practical outcome, not on the quality of Russia's performance.

Andrei Lebedev, Senior Associate, the State Club Foundation:

The weeks and days before the G8 summit were marked by numerous reports, statements, and publications featuring the many facets of what Western pundits consider to be the main problems with Russian democracy.

Russia has been accused of a multitude of sins in the area of democracy implementation, including "violations of religious freedoms" (in a July 14 U.S. Senate Resolution), "impeding democracy assistance" (in a June report of the National Endowment for Democracy) and especially the legislative changes that toughened policies towards NGOs.

If there is a single long-term project the West seems to have embarked upon, then "promotion of democracy in Russia" is it. Since the Kremlin shows no signs of yielding ground, new efforts will be undertaken. For the time being, the issue might be pushed to the back burner, overshadowed by energy security or more urgent international issues.

But these comments will resurface again and again, particularly as Russia's 2007-2008 election cycle approaches. A recent statement by U.S. Ambassador to Belarus George Krol might be considered a telling precedent. He recently expressed concern over the democratic nature of a proposed referendum on the Union State of Russia and Belarus. The arrogance is striking: the referendum has not yet been planned, but nevertheless a senior U.S. diplomat considers it appropriate to cast a shadow over its possible results. This pattern will most probably be followed in the months and years ahead, unnecessarily complicating U.S.-Russian relations.

Some Washington politicians might compare this method with the one that helped to shatter the Soviet regime. The only way to do this now would be to somehow provoke the Kremlin in to blocking information channels: jamming foreign broadcasting or limiting Internet usage, which seems most improbable at the moment. Therefore, we are heading for a new deterioration of Russia�s relationship with the West, though not a complete return to the Cold War.

Sergei Shishkarev, Deputy Chairman, State Duma Committee on Energy, Transportation and Communications:

The G8 summit was a success for both Russia and President Putin. There were no major setbacks; all the planned statements were passed. The one on energy security was probably too bland for some tastes, but it reflected Russia�s interests and concerns as much as those of the West. It has also brought nuclear energy back to the forefront of the international energy agenda.

The statements on education and combating infectious diseases highlight Russia's leading role in those areas, providing a follow-up agenda after the summit. The statement on the Middle East was passed only because of Putin's efforts and diplomatic skills, which were needed to mediate the differences between the United States and France.

A new international initiative on combating nuclear terrorism is an important achievement, accomplished mainly through the bilateral cooperation of Russia and the United States. This provides for a new cooperative agenda in U.S.-Russia relations and more broadly.

Western concerns over the state of Russian democracy did not overshadow the summit's agenda. Although raised privately by different G8 leaders, most notably by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the issue was used mainly to placate public opinion back at home rather than to influence policies in Russia.

Bush met with a group of virtually unknown leaders of civil society groups in Russia (one notable exception being Irina Yasina, a member of the board of the Open Russia Foundation), and Tony Blair's wife Cherie met with another group of human rights activists. But, as a Kremlin spokesman stated, those meetings underlined the undeniable fact that civil society is indeed alive and well in Russia.

Some observers claimed that failing to reach an agreement on the WTO with the United States represented a stunning setback for Putin, but this is not entirely so. While it is true that the Kremlin would have preferred to have a deal on WTO accession closed before the summit, it was not prepared to do so at any cost. Russia has already ceded enough ground to the U.S. negotiators, opening its insurance market to foreign companies, for instance. Making further concessions, particularly yielding to last-minute U.S. demands to lift all Russia sanitary controls on the imports of U.S. meat (a proposal that would have put the Russian government in a position of abdicating its duty to protect the nation's public health in favor of a foreign power), would have made the WTO deal politically untenable for Putin.

By standing his ground and refusing to agree to the U.S. terms, Putin demonstrated strength, leadership and a readiness to take personal responsibility for momentous decisions. He strengthened his position at home by not agreeing to a deal that was not good enough for Russia.

At a press conference held after the WTO talks collapsed, Bush said that the Americans were tough negotiators because the agreements they reach had to be passed by Congress. But Putin proved to be an even tougher negotiator, because he did not want to sign a deal that would have so much as a hint of damaging Russia's interests.