WASHINGTON — The lavish Olympic village built by President Vladimir Putin to host the world’s elite athletes will soon host leaders and elite policymakers from the eight largest economies. Leaders of the so-called G8 will gather in Sochi in early June for their annual summit.
June’s meeting will be the second hosted by Russia, and just as the Winter Olympics have put a spotlight on the country, many observers say the G8 Sochi Summit is also likely to have a significant impact internationally.
Russia was the last to join this elite club (in 1998), turning it from a "G7" into a "G8" – after seven years of its gradual involvement in the forum’s work, which also included the participation of then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the summits as an equal partner.
“Russia was allowed in under Yeltsin in order to secure Russian democracy and to make Moscow, and the critics of Yeltsin, see that cooperation with the West and Japan was more important than a new Cold War," said Thomas Ambrosio, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota. "Of course, what we have now is a solid, non-democracy [in Russia] that is chairing this organization.”
John Kirton of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto has a different view. He says Russia has come a long way given its history.
“At least Russia moved in the right direction. It's good to remember that countries like the UK and USA have an almost millennial democratic tradition - everything was started with [the] Magna Carta," he said. "We should remember that and be patient.”
According to Putin, Russian priorities at this year’s summit are the welfare of people, progress and development, which he said is reflected in the motto of the Russian chairmanship of the G8 in 2014 - "Risk Management for Sustainable Growth in a Safer World."
Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, says for all the planning that goes into G8 summits, they remain unpredictable. He points out that last year’s G8 meeting was overshadowed by the conflict in Syria, and before that it was the economic crisis in Greece and the war in southern Lebanon.
"In short, all the time, when they gather to discuss global issues, in the end, everything comes down to the need to respond to the current crisis," he said. "From now on, it looks like it will always be the case, regardless of who chairs [the summit].”
But Lukyanov says even if outside events loom large, there is a time-tested agenda at G8 summits.
"The priorities, as always, when discussing the common agenda of such events, will surely include stability of the global economy, a fairer system of decision-making by international financial organizations, fight against offshore companies,” he says.
Kirton notes that the Russian program reflects the traditional political priorities of the Kremlin and especially this year’s emphasis on health issues.
“In the last summit’s agenda there was virtually nothing about global health. But this is extremely important to improve the health of people around the globe,” he said.
Russia's mixed reviews
As the current chair of the G8 and host of the Winter Olympics, Russia has asserted itself on the world stage. Yet, in the eyes of the world’s public opinion, Russia gets a mixed verdict. According to a recent global survey by the Pew Research Center, just 36 percent of people polled in 38 countries expressed favorable views of Russia, and 39 percent held unfavorable views.
Ambrosio says that for Putin, the positive publicity associated with hosting a major global event cannot be underestimated.
“It elevates Putin’s global prestige and makes Russia look like a real player in world politics. It continues the very successful year that the Kremlin has had in terms of what I like to call punching above its weight class,” he said, adding that Moscow has also been at the center of major events on the world stage, such as Syria and Iran recently.
But some observers remain skeptical that Russia has much to gain from hosting the G8 summit.
William Pomeranz of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington says despite holding the prestigious presidency of the G8, the forum is on the periphery of Russian foreign policy, which is primarily concerned with the Eurasian Union, the BRICS and Ukraine.
“The fact that several G8 leaders skipped the Sochi games suggests that Russia will need to do some fence-mending when it assumes the G8 chairmanship," he said. "Western leaders generally have not been pleased with the anti-Western rhetoric coming from Moscow, and this tone will have to change if any major developments are to occur this year within the G8.”