Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 143

The one-time spy who is now Russia’s president racked up yet another improbable diplomatic triumph over the weekend as he managed to wow leaders of the Group of Seven countries during their annual summit meeting, which took place this year on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Reports suggested that President Vladimir Putin had dazzled G-7 leaders with a briefing covering his visit last week to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. More generally, Putin was praised for his professionalism and easy familiarity with the broad array of economic and political issues under consideration at this year’s summit. His performance was apparently especially noteworthy for the extent to which it contrasted with those of his erratic and sometimes bumptious predecessor–former President Boris Yeltsin–in international settings of this sort.

Putin’s triumph appeared to have been based on several factors, aside from the “brilliance”–to quote German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (AP, July 22)–which he displayed during the briefing on his North Korea visit. First, the visits he made just before the summit to China and North Korea served–just as leaders in Beijing, Pyongyang and Moscow probably intended–to raise Putin’s stature at the Okinawa meeting. Putin also profited by the fact that U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was attending his final G-7 summit, arrived late for the Okinawa meeting and appeared, by most accounts, to have been left tired and distracted by the Middle East peace talks he had been hosting until his departure.

Putin also went out his way to satisfy the desires of the host country Japan by joining a general effort to ensure that this year’s summit went off smoothly and without suggestions of discord among the eight countries involved (The Times, July 21). There had been fears among Japanese officials prior to the summit, for example, that sharp disagreements over U.S. ballistic missile defense plans might overwhelm the agenda Tokyo had prepared and the issues it wanted to emphasize. Those involved primarily world health, poverty, debt and globalization. And, while questions related to missile defense and arms control were addressed, particularly with respect to Putin’s North Korea visit, direct discussions were to some extent confined to sidebar meetings. Disagreements in this area were thus intentionally kept muted, as was possible discord over such contentious issues as the Balkans and Russia’s ongoing war in the Caucasus. According to Schroeder’s diplomatic advisor, Michael Steiner, with respect to Yugoslavia at least, “Putin wanted to say he is in the G-8 boat and… is not ready to play a part on the other side” (Reuters, July 23).

Putin also contributed greatly to the general amity of the Okinawa meeting by choosing not to raise the issue of debt relief. That was something of a surprise, given that reports prior to the summit had suggested the Russian president would at the least continue Moscow’s push for a rescheduling of the US$42 billion debt which Russia inherited from the Soviet Union following its collapse in 1991. Putin’s decision permitted the Russian delegation to argue at least a little bit more credibly that it now deserves to be treated as a full-fledged member. This was underscored during the summit, first, by Putin’s claims that Russia would ask for no special favors during this year’s meeting and, second, by his insistence that the group’s final communique include no separate reference to Russia.

Putin’s performance appeared to represent a tactical retreat and a bowing to the inevitable. G-7 governments had indicated prior to the summit that they were not inclined to discuss the question of debt relief with Moscow. Germany, Moscow’s largest creditor, has been especially adamant. Just prior to the start of the summit, the German chancellor was quoted as saying that “Russia is neither a developing country nor an emerging economy, but a world power.” He added that rising prices for its gas and oil exports had improved Russia’s revenues considerably (Reuters, July 21).

But Berlin’s hardline position on the question of Russian debt was more than balanced by the German delegation’s apparent support for making Russia a full-blown member of the group of leading industrial democracies. German officials were said to be asking, for example, whether it was not time to scrap the current practice of excluding Moscow from separate G-7 consultations on financial matters. Steiner described the separate economic session as a “fossil from the G-7 days” and said that Russia should be included as a full member in all talks. Schroeder himself reportedly suggested that it was time to do away with the existing two-tier format at meetings of the G-7 countries and Russia (Reuters, AP, July 21-23; BBC, July 23).

Some might wonder at this kind of enthusiasm. Russia, after all, is anything but a leading industrial country, and–particularly under Putin–even its credentials as a democracy are open to question. The inherent absurdness was only highlighted by the G-7’s final declaration. It included an expression of concern for the problems faced by less-fortunate nations and a number of ambitious pledges intended, as one news report put it, “to promote growth, fight disease and spread the benefits of technology in the developing world.” The G-7 leaders likewise vowed to move on debt forgiveness for forty-one impoverished nations, to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015, and to cut the number of HIV/AIDS cases 25 percent by 2010 (International Herald Tribune, July 24).

Russia, of course, is in no position to offer significant assistance in any of these areas. More to the point, in several of these categories–and particularly in those related to health–Russia is itself one of the world’s “less-fortunate” nations. International antipoverty groups denounced the weekend’s G-7 summit for–among other things–making grandiose promises of assistance to the less developed world while failing to back them up with any concrete funding commitments. Efforts to promote Russia as one the world’s leading democracies seemed to share in some of the same air of unreality which enveloped so much of what took place in Okinawa.