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Russia's Moment in the G-8 Sun Dimmed by Divisions

At the weekend summit, Moscow will be isolated in its views on energy and other key issues.

July 12, 2006|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — For President Vladimir V. Putin, being host of the Group of 8 industrialized nations this weekend should have been a dream come true.

But Western concerns about limits on democracy here, along with differences over how to rein in the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and ensure the world's "energy security," mean this gathering will not be quite the coming-out party for a confident new Russia that it might have been.

"This summit on Russia's territory ... could have become a sort of triumph for our country, a sort of confirmation of the fact that Russia has achieved very important results in its economic, political and democratic development and in its natural integration into the civilized world," Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin economic advisor who is now one of the president's most prominent critics, said at a recent news conference.

"It could have become a sign of recognition by the world that Russia has become a natural, normal and healthy member of the world community," he added. "Alas, unfortunately, this has not come to pass."

Illarionov and other critics say Russia lags further behind its G-8 partners in strength of democratic institutions than it did in 2002, when it formally joined the group. Russia's gas pricing dispute with Ukraine last winter, which led to a shortfall in supplies to Western Europe just as Russia assumed the G-8 presidency, has raised concerns in European countries about the potential risks of relying too heavily on Moscow for fuel.

The three-day summit in St. Petersburg, which will begin Saturday, will be preceded by meetings between President Bush and Putin beginning Friday. Bush is to fly today to Germany, where he will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel before traveling on to Russia.

Both Washington and Moscow have expressed hope that a bilateral agreement on the terms for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization will be reached by the time Bush and Putin meet. The two presidents also are expected to agree to begin negotiations on a deal to cooperate in nuclear energy, something Russia has been interested in for many years.

But on many of the key issues, including energy and how tough to be on Iran and North Korea, the summit conferees are likely to break in a 7-1 split -- even if the final communique tries to smooth over the differences.

For Russia, the top official item on the summit agenda is energy security. It seeks greater interdependence between oil and gas suppliers on one hand and consumers on the other. In particular, Moscow wants firmer guarantees of steady demand for Russian gas in Western Europe so it can make investments based on decades-long plans. Europe and the U.S. see opening up Russia's oil and gas industry to market forces and foreign investment as the key to long-term stability.

The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs are likely to dominate summit discussions, and Washington favors a far tougher stance than does Moscow, including possible economic sanctions. The issue further raises the potential for friction at the gathering.

Russian officials have expressed confidence that the summit will not mark a new slide toward confrontation between their nation and Western allies.

Fears of such a development arose in May, when Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a speech blasting Russia as backsliding on democracy and using gas and oil as geopolitical weapons. Putin responded six days later by describing the United States as a wolf that eats whatever it desires without listening to anyone.

Igor Shuvalov, the Kremlin's representative for G-8 planning, said at a recent news conference that Moscow's relations with Washington began to deteriorate because of the gas crisis with Ukraine and Russia's adoption of a law on nongovernmental organizations, which critics saw as tightening controls on activists.

This "unsatisfactory situation," Shuvalov said, "was developing and developing, constantly worsening, and this speech of Mr. Cheney in Vilnius became the peak of the development of this situation."

Shuvalov predicted that the Bush-Putin meetings Friday would reverse the trend.

Putin's top foreign policy aide, Sergei Prikhodko, said at a news conference last week that there was no chill at all in American-Russian relations.

"There's an extremely intensive and deep dialogue going on constantly between President Putin and President Bush," he said.

Prikhodko acknowledged that "there could be differences because we look at issues differently." But he said that on the key international issue facing the conferees -- in particular how to deal with Iran's nuclear program -- Moscow and Washington were basically united.

Prikhodko added, however: "The partnership is not a monolith, a concrete cube. It's a building we are building together. Sometimes it rains and the house sags down, but when we look at the long-term perspective ... such problems only strengthen the desire to be frank and honest with each other."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a taste of such frankness at a news conference after a meeting of G-8 foreign ministers last month in Moscow.

"We believe we can raise anything among our G-8 colleagues," she said. "We won't hesitate to talk about our concerns about nongovernmental organizations or the freedom of the press, and we do so in a spirit of candor and cooperation."

Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow think tank, predicted that summit criticism of Russia would be muted.

"I don't think that anybody among the G-8 partners wants to start a fight over the state of democracy in Russia and thus turn the summit into an interrogation of Russia on the issues of democracy and other related problems," he said.

"But it is quite obvious that these problems are of great concern for our partners, and they don't like everything that is being done in Russia. I suspect that some mild criticism may be voiced at the summit -- but in a very friendly manner."

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