Can the G-8 Survive St. Petersburg?

Russia’s gradual inclusion in the G-8 was supposed to nurture the growth of democracy, foster creation of a free-market economy, and encourage constructive behavior in international relations. Instead, Russia’s leaders have become more interested in consolidating state power at home and abroad than in promoting democracy, protecting human rights, and cooperating with the West. The collapse of the USSR, President Vladimir Putin has proclaimed, was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.

Obviously, the USSR is not about to be resurrected. But Putin has moved to reassert state control over strategic sectors of the economy, including oil and gas, communications, pipelines, electricity and banking, as well as limiting political rights, harassing independent groups, and strengthening control over the media. Moreover, Russia is coming to the fore, firmly and confidently, to regain its Great Power status. Putin continues to pursue a brutal military campaign in Chechnya while intervening politically in Soviet successor states like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Belarus and rejecting Western tactics aimed at curbing Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Putin’s position is reinforced by strong public support, as well as by the dramatically weakened position of major Western leaders. George W. Bush and Tony Blair have lost the popularity they enjoyed before the Iraq war, and Blair, together with French President Jacques Chirac, will soon leave the political scene. Angela Merkel in Germany and Romano Prodi in Italy are ruling with weak coalition governments.

In these circumstances, given Russia’s continuing failure to meet the G-8’s political and economic standards, the upcoming summit in St. Petersburg could produce a backlash, eroding the legitimacy, credibility, and relevance of the world’s most developed countries. Indeed, Russia and the world may well see in the summit the G-8’s silent approval of Putin’s domestic and foreign policies.