Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 12

By Elena Chinyaeva

Pundits have long argued that the age of summits is over, that in the post-Cold War world there is no need for the leaders of the competing superpowers to meet eyeball to eyeball and test each other’s wills.

That may be true. But in the anarchy of a globalizing world, leaders still seem to find some use in face-to-face meetings. These meetings now involve not just the two superpowers, but rather the Group of Eight leading industrial nations, often with dozens more attached.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly understood this transition better than most, and he has skillfully exploited it to his and Russia’s advantage. Just a month ago Putin was looking like a humiliated and marginalized figure for having backed the “wrong side” in the Iraqi war. But he has come out of the twin summits at St. Petersburg and Evian with his reputation enhanced. One can even speculate that a new international order might emerge, one in which Russia plays a central role.

Amid the glitz and racket surrounding the summits a realization has quietly emerged that such informal meetings might well substitute for the rigid process of decision-making through the United Nations and other international institutions that were established after World War II.

Despite the UN’s elaborate formal procedures, international policies during the Cold War were made mostly through informal power-broking between the two main players. Still, the UN was useful in that it provided both a legitimate context for international politics and an instrument of communications between often very bitter enemies. With the end of the Cold War the UN lost this role, and hence became increasingly irrelevant–for example, in the war on terrorism. This trend culminated in the UN’s marginalization as a result of the US decision to go to war in Iraq. The UN can hardly now be used for mending relations between the United States and France and Germany–given that the UN itself was the fulcrum of their disagreements over how to handle Iraq.

Such informal meetings as the G-8 summits, however, have acquired a new meaning in recent years, and have given anti-globalists a reason to dub their participants a “world government” in the making. It is still an open question whether such informal meetings of the world’s leaders may be more effective than the bureaucratic UN. But Russia has obviously decided to book itself an important place in a new international hierarchy.

Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia insisted that it be invited to G-7–Group of Seven–summits. Skeptics ridiculed Yeltsin’s interest in the G-7 as driven by an inflated ego, or at best as a form of posturing for his domestic electorate. Beginning in 1992, Russia was invited as an observer. In 1996 it became a partial member for the main meetings–but still excluded from the meetings of finance ministers. Finally, at Evian last week, Russia was formally accepted as a full member, and the G-7 was turned into the G-8. In 2006, Russia will assume the presidency of the G-8 and host the annual summit. Vladimir Putin, who has made foreign policy his special field of expertise–and successfully so–has capitalized on Yeltsin’s initiative and misses no opportunity to strengthen Russia’s role in international politics.

The Evian summit coincided conveniently with the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. The Russian president turned the jubilee of his home town into a world event that was attended by the leaders of no less than forty-three countries. For two days, beginning on May 31, St. Petersburg’ s airport was closed to all flights except those carrying international leaders. Over 700 guests came from the United States alone.

Parallel with the celebrations, three summits of international organizations were conducted. The first was in Moscow, among the leaders of the six countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A summit of CIS leaders and then a Russia-European Union summit followed, both in St. Petersburg. A number of bilateral meetings among the world’s leaders also took place, including one between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush.

In fact, it had been Kazakhstan’s turn to host the CIS summit, but the Kazakh leadership judiciously left the honor to St Petersburg. Traditionally, Russia-EU summits take place in Russia in the second half of the year. In a departure from previous practice, all discussions this year were left open to journalists–not that anything sensational was said there. The issue of visa-free travel for the Russians into the EU zone, which seems to have become one of Putin’s pet topics, drew a very modest response from European leaders. This led Putin to complain that: “Instead of the Berlin Wall, the EU is building up the Schengen Wall.” (Schengen being the agreement for common visa regulations within the EU.)

Yet, this Russia-EU summit was special in that the leaders of ten future EU member countries were also invited to attend. There were practical reasons for widening the invitation list. The EU is already Russia’s biggest trading partner, and with the ten new members it will account for more than half of Russia’s trade. However, an underlying motif was also not lost on observers: That the invitation was extended to the leaders of future EU member countries–most of them from the former Soviet bloc–as if Moscow was doing them a favor. Yet the ten were treated as second-tier guests in comparison with the “true” members of the EU. Awkwardly, the leaders of the ten candidate countries had to sit in the outer ring of seats while the fifteen members were seated at the table with Putin, suggesting that Russia was in a position to grant favors and create hierarchies.

The visit of President Bush was brief. He missed the French president by half an hour, thus denying Putin the glorious mission of making peace between the two bitter opponents. Still, some commentators credited Putin’s diplomatic skills with creating a positive climate, which encouraged Bush to drop his initial plan “To forgive Russia, ignore Germany and punish France.”

As for the summit itself, it yielded no startling practical results. The two sides exchanged the ratification protocols of the 2002 Moscow treaty on reducing nuclear arms; issued a joint declaration on the North Korean nuclear program; and signed a “Declaration on Strategic Partnership.” Bush was even insensitive enough to promise Putin once again that he would continue to “work with Congress” to persuade it to eliminate the long outdated 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which makes trade with Russia conditional on allowing Jewish emigration. Cracks between the two sides on the question of Iran’s nuclear program were papered over, with Bush opining that “the positions of the two countries on the issue of the nuclear non-proliferation regarding Iran are very close.”

As was the case in St. Petersburg, the subsequent G-8 summit in Evian was notable not so much for the fruits of the discussions or decisions made there, but for the sheer spectacle of attendance by the leaders of the eight industrialized countries and a number of specially invited quests, including the Chinese president.

It looks increasingly likely that the new format of informal meetings of world leaders will take precedence over the well-established but heavily rusted system of international institutions. On the other hand, the new format may prove to be little more than a nicely-painted screen, one used to conceal both a lack of real power and a willingness among the world’s leaders–with their diverging national interests–to find meaningful compromises.

After all, both St. Petersburg and Evian were but two brief stops in President Bush’s whirlwind international tour, during which he also restarted the peace process in the Middle East and targeted Iran to be among the next rank of international culprits to be punished. Indeed, while discussions continue over who is and is not important enough to be invited to join the new world “Politburo”–and what it should be allowed to do–there is not the slightest doubt either about who has assumed the position of Secretary General or how much power goes with that position.

Elena Chinyaeva holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University and is a writer for Kommersant-Vlast, a leading Russian political weekly.