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Russia’s Skeptical G8 Partners

Poor oil-rich Russia. It is trying so hard to have its turn as chair of the elite Group of Eight countries taken seriously. President Vladimir Putin, perhaps hoping to elevate the presidential summit talks in St. Petersburg in July, has laid out an ambitious agenda. He plans to lead his colleagues in erudite conversations about education, infectious diseases, and – to make sure that no one dozes off – “energy security.”

And what has Putin gotten for his efforts? Not much. The Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney (but with his boss’s explicit approval), recently accused Russia of backsliding into its old “evil empire” ways. Putin shot back, portraying the United States as “Comrade Wolf,” ready to pounce on any nation that leaves itself vulnerable. Suspense seems to be building around how Bush and Putin will greet each other when they meet in St. Petersburg.

Europeans, for their part, are still hysterical about getting caught up in the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute that left their pipelines dry for a few days at the beginning of this year. They see discussing “energy security” with Russia as akin to chatting about water safety with Comrade Crocodile.

Of course, people who really want to be unkind will point out the absurdity of Russia’s membership in a club that includes the giant economies of US, Germany, Japan, England, France, Italy, and (less so) Canada. Why wasn’t Chinese president Hu Jintao, whose country’s economy is the world’s second largest (when measured at world prices), given a seat at the table instead of Putin? After all, even with all its energy resources, and even with today’s sky-high oil and gas prices, Russia’s national income is only about the size of Greater Los Angeles.