This time last year leaders of the Group of Eight industrialised countries had just completed their Africa-themed summit at Gleneagles. As the months went by, however, two quite different thoughts increasingly preyed on the minds of seven of them. The first was: how on earth had it come to pass that President Putin of Russia would host the 2006 summit at St Petersburg. The second was: what in heaven's name would they all find to talk about.
This summit is now upon us. The seven leaders arrive in St Petersburg at the end of this week, and the second question now has two quite specific and urgent answers. Africa (the follow-up), education, Aids and drugs will be there as safe stand-bys, but energy supplies and nuclear proliferation are what this summit will be about.
As it happens, Russia holds the key to both. With its vast and under-exploited reserves, it has the potential to become the chief supplier of oil and gas, not just to Europe, but to much of the Far East as well. The visiting leaders also hope that Russia will join a scheme to solidify the nuclear non-proliferation regime and rein in Iran and North Korea.
We shall probably have to wait for the final communiqués from St Petersburg to discover the extent of agreement. But Mr Putin has been preparing assiduously for what he undoubtedly sees as his finest hour. Last week he met representatives of Western non-government organisations for three hours. He spent another three hours answering e-mailed questions from around the world - on everything from high politics to kissing children. As an appetiser for the St Petersburg feast, Russia also lifted all remaining controls on the rouble, making it to all intents and purposes convertible.
Add the likely successful flotation of the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft in London and yesterday's announcement that Russian special forces had tracked down and killed the Chechen enemy No One, Shamil Basayev (as big a catch as Osama bin Laden would be for the US), and it is clear that Mr Putin goes to St Petersburg riding high. Yet the question of Russia's right to chair the rich countries' club still nags. Its per capita GDP is, after all, still below that of Portugal.
The technical reason why Russia was granted the chairmanship is that the other seven could find no reason to deny it. The USSR in its dying days had been admitted as an associate in an abortive effort to give Mikhail Gorbachev the international kudos that some Western politicians misguidedly believed might save him. To have ejected Boris Yeltsin's Russia would have conveyed quite the wrong message about the West's support for the post-Communist government. Once a member, it was only a matter of time before Russia qualified for the chairmanship. This mechanical entitlement, however, has not prevented the eruption of a ferocious debate outside Russia about Mr Putin's suitability to take the chair on Saturday. Politicians, academics, retired diplomats and activists of every hue have all had their say. The result is a plethora of pamphlets, books and press articles, here and in the United States, that cite much the same evidence to reach opposite conclusions about Vladimir Putin and the Russia he leads.
One view regards Mr Putin as an incorrigible authoritarian who yearns for the days of Soviet power and is successfully bending a reluctant Russia to his dictatorial will. Adherents dwell on Mr Putin's KGB career and connections; the closure of independent (i.e. oligarch-owned) television stations and the reversion to the appointment, rather than election, of regional governors. They add the barbaric war in Chechnya; last year's imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the erstwhile owner of Russia's largest private oil company, Yukos, and Gazprom's decision to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine.
The other view sees Mr Putin as a President of and for his time, who has brought stability and more sound economic management and democracy than could be expected, given Russia's recent history. Adherents cite the prudent stewardship of the budget surplus high oil prices have produced; continuing reform of the courts, the codification of laws to bring them into line with Western practice, and the commercial considerations that should guide Russia's exports of oil and gas.
Living standards for most Russians, they say, are higher than they have ever been; Russians can plan with confidence for their future. They ask why a government should subsidise opposition media outlets that cannot pay their way, and they ascribe the dissatisfaction of tiny intellectual and communist-era elites to their contempt for a president they regard, snobbishly, as their social inferior.
There is a genuine debate to be had here, both about the nature of post-Soviet Russia and the policies we in Britain and Europe should pursue. And it is one we should have had long ago. We did not have it in Boris Yeltsin's time because the West was so heavily invested in his survival. We have not had it since Vladimir Putin succeeded him because, until very recently, the negative view rooted in old-style Soviet preconceptions was so dominant. Opposing voices struggled to be heard.
It is a healthy sign that finally something akin to a real discussion is taking place. But it is regrettable that this is happening not because of any heightened curiosity about what is really going on in Russia, but because of our selfish panic about energy supplies.Reuse content