St. Petersburg is a great place in early summer, when the “White Nights” bathe the city’s imperial palaces and avenues. Small wonder, then, that Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to show off his hometown.
Three years ago, during the Tsarist capital’s 300th anniversary, Putin hosted some 40 heads of state, ranging from George W. Bush and Gerhard Schroeder to Belarusian dictator Alexandar Lukashenka and Turkmenistan’s Saparmyrat Nyazov, who styles himself “Turkmenbashi,” the father of Turkmen. Human rights activists questioned the wisdom of endorsing the leader of a growingly authoritarian Russia. Yet Putin managed simultaneously to celebrate his anti-Iraq war cooperation with Europe, have the US swallow this, and be recognized in front of his local minions as a world leader.
This summer, St. Petersburg (dubbed by local wits “St. Putinsburg”) may see a repeat performance: Russia will preside over a G8 summit for the first time, despite increasing authoritarianism, the ongoing bloody war in Chechnya, and now support for Iran’s nuclear program.
Deflecting mounting criticism, Bush rejects appeals to boycott the summit. “I need to be in a position where I can sit down with him [Putin] and be very frank about our concerns,” Bush said in late March at Freedom House in Washington.