The final countdown to the 2006 G-8 summit has begun. After months of heated debates, miles of memos, and tons of paperwork, after many rounds of preparatory talks among shrewd “sherpas” and many moments of hesitation about whether to boycott the event or just skip the dessert, the leaders of the seven leading industrial democracies will arrive in St. Petersburg Saturday and confirm that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rightfully a member of their club. It matters not that Russia has fulfilled only 14% of the obligations enumerated at the previous summit, compared to the robust 95% shown by the United Kingdom, according to methodology developed by the G-8 Research Group from the University of Toronto (Kommersant, July 7). It also apparently matters very little that Russia is going through a “systemic crisis of democratic institutions,” according to human rights NGOs that have been desperately trying to raise their voice against the official propaganda (Novye izvestiya, July 6). The leaders of the West have many urgent issues to discuss, from the shocking series of missile tests by North Korea to the spiraling confrontation in Gaza, and they need Russia on board to make these discussions constructive, even if in diplomatic lingo this term often means “sterile.”
The main topic President Putin, in his capacity as chairman, has put forward for joint consideration is energy security — and this seemingly uncontroversial headline has evolved into an explosive and bitterly contested proposition. It has been established beyond any reasonable doubt that Russia defines its energy security interests in such a way that would maximize the political dividends derived from the fact that it is by far the largest producer of energy in the world. That fact objectively makes it a major source of insecurity for all states depending on imported energy and paying increasing prices for this dependency in more than just money. The United States has by and large given up on Russia as a potential supplier, but the Europeans have only been able to clarify the dilemma: They can increase their energy security only by diversifying away from Russia in the mid-term, but for that they need uninterrupted and expanded deliveries from this problematic source in the short-term. The compromise, as it emerges in the draft document that awaits eight final touches, acknowledges Moscow’s desire for “demand security” and recognizes the acceptability of long-term contracts while still emphasizing the primacy of market self-regulation (Vedomosti, July 7). It is sufficiently clear, however, that Europeans would remain reluctant to sell their energy infrastructure to Gazprom, since it is the same as selling it to the Kremlin, the very same Kremlin that is set to see a fierce clan struggle around the changing of the guard in early 2008.
Not being able to achieve much in the only area that matters to him, namely gas exports, Putin has settled for being the perfect host. The pomp and fanfare around the summit go beyond the limits set by the celebration of St. Petersburg’s tercentennial in 2003 and of 60 years after victory in the Great Patriotic War in 2005. The city has received yet another facelift and the reconstructed palace complex in Strelna where the summit will convene is hermetically sealed, while surrounding areas have been cleansed of all semi-legal migrants and other “questionable elements” (Vremya novostei, July 7). Dozens of suspected radicals and NGO activists were detained or arrested all over the country in the course of implementation of “necessary preventive measures” (Ezhednevny zhurnal, July 8). Such measures were retroactively legitimized by the State Duma, which hastily approved revisions to the Law on Countering Extremist Activity so that almost any protest against state policies could now be defined as “extremism” (Lenta.ru, July 8). Despite great pressure, several opposition groups are still sticking to their plan to hold the conference “Other Russia” on July 11-12 in order to unite political forces that oppose Putin’s policies (Novaya gazeta, July 6).
In the last public events before the summit Putin has exuded a confidence that no unpleasant questions about Russia’s retreat from democracy will spoil the meticulously planned schedule of photo-ops, small talk, and long toasts. Meeting with the participants of a broad international forum of NGOs in Moscow, he asserted that the G-8 had neither the time nor the intention to discuss human rights (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 5). His aide and G-8 point man, Igor Shuvalov, warned that any participation by Western officials in the “Other Russia” conference would be interpreted as an “unfriendly gesture” (Newsru.com, June 30). At the same time, Putin saw no need to refrain from such gestures himself, and Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasts were suddenly discontinued by more than 60 provincial radio stations found to be in violation of licensing regulations (Polit.ru, July 7).
U.S. President George W. Bush is apparently resigned to attending the mandatory, but low-content, event and intends to touch upon delicate matters of the democratic deficit only during a personal meeting with Putin before the formal start of the summit (Gazeta.ru, July 7). He knows full well that “lecturing” could only make Putin defensive, while politics remains the art of possible — and for now a deal on Iran’s nuclear aspirations still remains within that category of “possible.” For European leaders it also makes perfect political sense not to irritate the extra-sensitive host. Everybody will be on their best behavior — but it is quite possible that the club of politically super-correct leaders will fall victim to this “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” ritual. Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s former advisor and outspoken critic, has warned that the G-8 could compromise its integrity in Strelna so badly that its further existence would become irrelevant (Moscow Times, April 18). Western leaders still have a few days to consider whether the Group deserves better.