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S. Upadhya: Eyeball To Eyeball At Putin’s Party

Eyeball To Eyeball At Putin’s Party


By Sanjay Upadhya

In the run-up to the three-day Group of Eight (G8) summit he is hosting in his native St. Petersburg from July 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been sounding increasingly assured about his country’s place in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs.

Moscow has been invited to attend annual summits of the world’s industrialized democracies for some years now. But this is the first year the country has been accepted as a full member. Russia, moreover, was included in the organization without its having attained the economic or democratic development of the other members -- United States, Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany, France and Italy.

Admittedly, this exception was made to promote the continuation of Russia’s free-market economic reforms and democratization. As the other G8 members in varying degrees bemoan Russia’s failure to keep its side of the bargain, Putin expects to exude his nation’s new-found confidence buttressed by, among other things, growing revenues from energy exports.

For US President George W. Bush, who famously looked Putin in the eye in Slovenia five years ago and concluded he could do business with the Russian leader, St. Petersburg will offer moments of reflection. The post-9/11 camaraderie between Washington and Moscow has been replaced by contours of a deepening adversarial relationship.

The turning point was Washington’s involvement in the color-coded revolutions in former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia that put pro-western leaders in power. In response to America’s engagement in its ‘near abroad’, Moscow has assiduously built stronger military, political and economic relations with Iran, Syria, Venezuela and other regimes out of favor with Washington.

In February, Putin invited Hamas representatives to Moscow at a time when Washington was leading an international effort to isolate the newly elected leaders in the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, Moscow offered considerable financial aid to what the United States regards a terrorist organization.

In April, American efforts to impose United Nations-backed sanctions on Iran were blocked by Moscow’s support for Teheran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program. Lately, Putin has criticized the US and Japan for their hawkishness on the North Korean missile crisis, saying such a posture would worsen matters.

Russia has joined hands with China in an apparent initiative to resist American efforts to change regimes it dislikes. Moscow and Beijing have reinforced military and energy-trade relations in an effort to bolster their global leverage.

Putin has shaped the St. Petersburg agenda around energy, education, and the eradication of infectious diseases. European nations rely significantly on Russian natural gas supplies. Moscow, which exports oil around the world, recognizes competitively stable energy prices as the key to its long-term economic prosperity.

The other G8 members, too, have energy high on their minds – but in a less salutary sense. The Kremlin’s recent effort to tighten control over energy exports has raised concern in Europe. The Putin administration’s suspension of natural gas supplies to Ukraine several months ago – ostensibly for the former Soviet republic’s efforts to pull itself out of Moscow’s orbit -- left Europe with shortages. Europeans seeking assurances of reliable gas supplies from Russia confront a government setting most of the terms.

The G8 summit would provide Putin an opportunity to showcase the reality of Russia’s resurgence on his watch. When he took office in 2000, Russia was mired in chaos and corruption, where ultra-rich oligarchs were really in charge. The war in Chechnya was becoming increasingly brutal beyond the restive region. Moscow’s default and the ruble devaluation of 1998 left economic prospects uncertain.

Putin believes his firm hand in governance, not only high oil prices, is behind the rise in wages and living standards and Russia’s ability to make the last repayment of its foreign debt. The growth of a middle class in a nation struggling to break free from the Soviet-era worker-nomenklatura divide is as gripping a reality as the high approval ratings Putin has consistently enjoyed. Last week’s killing of Shamil Basayev, a Chechen rebel leader blamed for massive atrocities against civilians, handed Putin a major victory in his war on terror.

The other G8 members are more concerned about the political price Russians are being forced to pay for these successes. Although Russia is far from a return to Soviet-style repression, it is sliding back to a form of authoritarianism. Much of the political opposition to Putin has been bulldozed or bought off. The once-vibrant broadcast media have been forced off the air or taken over by Kremlin allies.

Putin has reversed much of the post-Soviet decentralization of political power by abolishing elected governorships in the provinces. Corruption may be less visible than under Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s ailing and bumbling predecessor, but it certainly has not been less pernicious.

Clearly, Putin expects to deflect criticism of his domestic and foreign policies by using the Iranian and North Korean crises to establish Russia’s credentials as a responsible international player. As he looks Putin in the eye this time, Bush might want to keep his gazed fixed a little longer.

ENDS

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