Leading article: The hard politics of Russia's new global power

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Russia's assumption of the G8 presidency this weekend could not come at a more sensitive time for its Western colleagues in this group of rich states. Just as the organisation tries to expand its economic remit to include human rights and global poverty, a country that is increasingly condemned for human rights abuses becomes its leader.

The inclusion of Russia in the old G7 was always an odd business. The decision was essentially political - a carrot held out to Boris Yeltsin's chaotic but friendly state which was supposed to turn into a cuddly democracy once teething problems associated with its particularly unsavoury brand of Wild West capitalism had been ironed out.

It never worked out that way, and now the Europeans find themselves uneasily joined under the same canopy by a leader whose authoritarian and anti-democratic instincts are revealed with growing clarity. An additional problem is that Vladimir Putin's Russia is using its vast reserves of energy to strut the world stage. Flinging off the role of the West's docile pupil, the Kremlin has formed a close, effective partnership with China, another restive and authoritarian state.

The ramifications of what one might call the Putin Doctrine can be seen at home and in what many Russians regrettably call the near-abroad, by which they mean the old Soviet Union. At home, Mr Putin's indifference to Western criticism has allowed him to steamroller over his opponents, be they independent television stations, oligarchs with political ambitions of their own, independent-minded regional governors and - lately - foreign-based NGOs. Their very existence is imperilled by the expected passage of new laws curbing their finances and political activities. Most recently, Andrei Illarionov, a former close adviser to Mr Putin, has resigned from the Kremlin, saying Russia is no longer politically or economically a free country.

Abroad, Mr Putin's oil and gas-powered assertiveness has revealed itself in an attempt to interfere with the democratic process in Ukraine, to intimidate those Baltic states that rely on Russia for energy, and to reassert Russian control over the ex-Soviet republics in the Caucasus and central Asia.

This presents the rest of the G8 with a dilemma. How are they to reconcile their newly honed idealism on human rights and democracy with the Russian leader's disinterest, or hostility, to those same issues? The forthright answer of some American senators is to call for the United States to boycott the G8 summit next summer in St Petersburg. Human Rights Watch, whose activities may soon be curtailed under the new law on NGOs, wants other G8 members to put this issue at the top of their agenda when they meet Mr Putin.

Neither the NGOs nor the senators are likely to receive much satisfaction, for the demands imposed by America's war on terrorism have made it very indulgent of Russia's own campaigns against what it pleases to call Islamic terrorists. As for the Europeans, they are now so dependent on the world's largest supplier of natural gas that they are equally unlikely to rock Mr Putin's G8 throne in 2006. This is unfortunate, for if 2006 is not to see the reassertion of brutal power politics at the expense of human rights, Europe has to hold out the carrot and stick to the Kremlin using the bargaining counter of trade.

If this is not to happen, then the least worst outcome would be for the G8 to withdraw from the rights arena altogether and return to its original brief of pure economics. That at least would save us from the prospect of Mr Putin distorting the G8's human rights policies to fit the Kremlin's own world view.

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