The Big Question: What does Russia's chairmanship say about the future of the G8?

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Why are Russia and the G8 under scrutiny?

The annual summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrialised countries - the US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Russia - takes place in Russia's second city, St Petersburg, this weekend. Russia's preliminary agenda had featured education and world health. But G8 summits have a history of being overtaken by events - last year's, at Gleneagles, coincided with the London bombings - and the St Petersburg summit takes place at an especially tricky juncture in international politics.

With world oil prices at record levels, Russia's energy stocks have made it an attractive partner for most of the other G8 countries which are net importers. The quest for reliable energy supplies - or "energy security" - will be a central theme at St Petersburg. But so will the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea - where Russia is playing a key diplomatic role - the upsurge in violence in the Middle East, and terrorism, as just experienced in Mumbai.

What is the point of the G8?

A good question, and one that is asked every year. The original purpose was to give the leaders of the richest countries an opportunity to discuss global issues in an informal atmosphere. In 1975, when the first summit was held in the shadow of the oil crisis, this was a novel idea. As time has gone on, however, the occasions on which the same leaders meet has multiplied, so the G8 summit has ceased to be so special. And although security has dictated ever more secluded venues, the media circus around the meetings has only grown.

In one sense, with the focus returning to energy and economics, the G8 has come full circle. In another, though, the rise of China and India has made the concept look rather tired. President Putin has invited the Chinese and Indian leaders to join some of the discussions this year, and there are suggestions that the group could soon be expanded and revamped.

Why is Russia in the G8 at all?

This really is all about politics. The first time Russia attended what was then the G7 was in 1991, when the summit was held in London. Mikhail Gorbachev was given observer status in his capacity as Soviet president and the man Margaret Thatcher had said she could "do business with". It was in part a reward from the West for the reforms he had introduced. It was also an - abortive - attempt to keep him in power and shore up the Soviet Union.

With Russia internationally recognised as its successor state and the G7 countries even more enthusiastic about Boris Yeltsin than they had been about Gorbachev, Russia's position in the G7 was secure. A fudge allowed it to become a member of the non-economic part of the summit in 1994. In 1998, Russia was admitted as a full member, and the G7 officially became the G8. The other members saw membership as a way of anchoring Russia in the Western world and encouraging it to further reform. Russia's GDP, both net and per capita, however, still lag far behind those of the other G8 countries. If the admissions criteria had been purely economic, Russia would never have qualified.

Why did Russia want the chair so badly?

Above all, for status. Vladimir Putin has made the restoration of Russia's national dignity a priority of his presidency. He wants Russians to feel good about their country after what many saw as the humiliation of the Soviet Union's collapse. He would have seen it as an insult to him personally, and to Russia, if the other seven had decided that Russia was unworthy to hold the chairmanship when its turn came round.

Presiding over the G8 gives him the chance to show off his home city, St Petersburg, to world leaders - and to television audiences around the world. More important, it allows him to be seen as an equal at the world's "top table" and conveys the message that Russia is a global player. If Russia wants one thing from the G8 chairmanship, it is respect, in the sense of being treated as a normal country with legitimate national interests.

So what is so controversial?

Just as Mr Putin sees the summit as an opportunity for Russia to shine, so his critics see it as a chance to make their points in the spotlight of global publicity. Some simply believe that Russia has no place at the top table on economic grounds. Most, though, oppose Russia's G8 chairmanship on ethical grounds. Their complaint is that Mr Putin has presided over a retreat of freedom and does not deserve any favours from the West. The US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, voiced a view widely held by the US Congress, when he recently accused Russia of backsliding on democracy.

The list of objections includes the war in Chechnya; the politically inspired imprisonment of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky; a law banning receipt of foreign money by Russian NGOs; restrictions on media freedom, including the closure four years ago of two independent television stations; and interference in Ukrainian elections. Critics also cite the prevalence of corruption and poor standards of governance as undermining Russia's claim to be a fully paid-up member of the civilised world.

Business circles and some Russia-watchers take a more charitable view, stressing the economic stability and higher living standards Putin's tenure has brought, and the much greater freedom Russians now enjoy, compared with Soviet times. They note the international agreements Russia has signed, including - against expectations - the Kyoto treaty on climate change.

What, if anything, will come out of St Petersburg?

The usual outcome of a G8 summit is a collection of carefully worded communiques representing the lowest common denominator position on the subjects discussed. We can expect statements on energy security, development, and perhaps also on nuclear proliferation and the Middle East.

More interesting, if less predictable, will be the talks before the summit and in the margins. Yesterday, Russia announced that it had met the conditions for joining the World Trade Organisation. A multilateral agreement of some sort on what to do about Iran and its nuclear programme cannot be ruled out either.

Should Russia be hosting the G8 summit?


* Russia was admitted to full membership of the G8 in 1998 and its turn had come round

* Shunning Russia would have removed all incentives for it to become more democratic

* Other G8 countries need good relations with Russia more than ever because of its energy reserves


* Russia's GDP and living standards, however calculated, place it well outside the rich countries' club

* The chairmanship will be interpreted by President Putin as a sign that restricting freedoms has no price

* Russia will never be 'one of us', so why pretend any longer that it is, or even could be?