WORLD

EVERYONE’S MAD ABOUT VLAD

The tough talk dies down as the other G8 leaders rally around Putin

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE July 24 2006
WORLD

EVERYONE’S MAD ABOUT VLAD

The tough talk dies down as the other G8 leaders rally around Putin

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE July 24 2006

EVERYONE’S MAD ABOUT VLAD

The tough talk dies down as the other G8 leaders rally around Putin

WORLD

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

When Vladimir Putin made his virgin appearance at the Group of Eight summit in July 2000, the leaders assembled on the Japanese island of Okinawa were smitten. The former spymaster was younger and better looking than his populist predecessor Boris Yeltsin—and sober. He talked a good game about democracy, and impressed the others by admitting that his country had problems, lots of them, and vowing to fix them. He gamely fielded extensive questions from the international press—and acted as if he enjoyed it. “We were all very impressed by the performance of Mr. Putin,” gushed Jean Chrétien at the summit.

France’s Jacques Chirac praised Putin’s commitment to a “peaceful and democratic Russia.” Germany’s Gerhard Schröder proposed that Russia be made a full G8 member. At the 2002 summit in Kananaskis, Alta., Russia was formally added to the summit rotation. According to the official communiqué, this “reflects the remarkable economic and

democratic transformation that has occurred in Russia in recent years and in particular under the leadership of President Putin.” This weekend, Putin will host his first G8 summit in St. Petersburg—and the tone could hardly be more different. There have been calls, particularly in the U.S. and Britain, for a boycott of the summit, or expelling Russia from the clubhouse. A group of American lawmakers, including Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat Joe Lieberman, wrote to the G8 leaders, calling on them to “rebuke” Putin for actions “inconsistent with G8 democratic norms,” and to meet separately without him. “President Putin has steered Russia away from democracy and toward authoritarianism,” they said. “He has increased pressure on opposition political parties and civil society, strengthened state control over national broadcast media, and pursued politically driven prosecutions of independent business leaders, academics and others voicing criticism of the government.”

Others have also lashed out at Putin, including international human rights groups, and U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, after

Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine earlier this year. Putin blamed a price dispute, but critics saw the move as yet another instance of Russia punishing a former Soviet satellite state moving closer to Europe and NATO. In May, Cheney told an audience in Vilnius, Lithuania, that Russian “opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade.” Cheney accused Russia of using oil and gas shipments as “tools of intimidation and blackmail” and of “interfering with democratic movements.” Says Celeste Wallander, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank: “It’s an enormous irony that you have the country that holds the presidency of the G8 taking itself down a path contrary to what the G8 is supposed to be about—market-oriented, liberal democracies.”

Such criticism has plunged the Russians into damage-control mode for what was supposed to be their own international coming-

out ball. “The high hopes I had heard in Russia a year ago, that with hosting the summit Russia was emerging as a modem great power— those hopes are gone,” says Wallander. “The government is now trying to avoid a disastrous summit—one that would be embarrassing to Putin and Russia.”

Yet so far, the indications are that Moscow is succeeding. President George W. Bush is not boycotting, and has indicated that while he plans to raise thorny issues, he will do so respectfully, without causing Putin to lose face. “Nobody either wants to be lectured by somebody. Nobody either likes to be scolded publicly,” Bush has said. Likewise, Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently told reporters that while he expected questions about Russian democracy to be raised at the summit, “at the same time we do want to recognize some of the progress that Russia has made, and we all know that President Putin took over a country that had a remarkable range of problems, not just in the area of democratic governance.” Others sounding a conciliatory note have been U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay.

In fact, Cheney’s tough talk is shaping up to be the harshest words that Putin may have to face from his guests. The reality is that his fellow G8 leaders can’t help but recognize that Putin could be quite useful to them as they grapple with North Korea’s missile tests and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Among G8 leaders he is the one with the closest relationship with North Koreans,” says John Kirton, di-

rector of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, who has spent recent weeks in Moscow on a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency, advising the Russian presidency on hosting a successful summit. “Mr. Putin is by far the G8 leader most well-connected with the Iranian elite, someone who can go behind the headlines and figure out what is going on there.”

For their part, the Russians have been doing their best to convince the other G8 members that embarrassing them would not be in the West’s best interest. In the pre-summit meetings among ministers and government officials,

they have been uncharacteristically co-operative on international efforts concerning Iran. They have also flaunted their clout as an energy producer, at a summit whose theme is “energy security.” Officially, Putin wants to help oil-importing countries by developing an international strategy for avoiding energy crises. But according to Wallander, Russia has also signalled that contracts to develop its gas fields will go to those companies whose home countries enjoy good political relations with Moscow.

Putin has also tried to defuse some of the criticism of his domestic policies, such as a recent law that gives the government more power over non-governmental organizations. He defends the law, saying it is aimed at regulating such groups, and at preventing foreign funds from influencing Russian politics. NGOs, though, say the law is vague and enables the government to harass them, so Putin made a point of convening an official NGO summit July 3-4, and publicly promised to make sure the implementation of the new measures would not be restrictive. The steps seem to be working. A senior White House official said the administration is encouraged, although he called the enactment of the law “critical, and something that we are watching very, very closely.”

The Russian president is also relying on the same candour and charm offensive that served bim well in 2000. He recently took part in an international webcast on BBC News in which he answered a smattering from some 5,000 questions submitted by viewers from around the globe, on subjects ranging from military policy in Chechnya to when he first had sex. (“I can’t remember the first time,” he answered. “But I remember exactly when I last did it.”) Meanwhile, Bush, who once claimed to have looked into the Russian’s “soul,” is making nice. “I do like him,” Bush recently told interviewer Larry King. “I don’t necessarily agree with every decision he’s made about what’s happening inside Russia, but it’s very important for me to keep a good personal relationship with him so I can have good, candid discussions.” Putin reciprocated, saying of Bush: “I consider him one of the people I consider to be my friends.” Friends in need are friends indeed. M

ON THE WEB: See Luiza Ch. Savage’s new blog, at www.macleans.ca/luizasavage