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Will G-8 Summit be Forum for Criticizing Russia?

Leaders of the group of eight industrialized nations, known as the G-8, will meet next month in St. Petersburg, Russia. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at whether western nations will use the meeting to criticize Russia's domestic policies.

This will be the first time in its history that Russia will host a G-8 summit.

Mark Brzezinski, who was the National Security Council's Director of Russian Affairs in the Clinton administration, says that meeting is extremely important for Russia and president Vladimir Putin.

"What is at stake for Russia is its own perception of its 'face' in the world. It really wants its summit to go well, which is why the Russian government has even hired a big [U.S.] public relations firm [Ketchum] to cast a very positive face on the Kremlin and the kinds of activities that Russia has been conducting that otherwise might be cast in a negative way in the international press," Brzezinski said. "And they do feel that their national prestige is on the line. They are the hosts of the most prestigious and most closely watched international summit when it comes to the industrialized democracies in the world."

Experts say the G-8 summit comes at a time when President Putin continues to consolidate power and takes measures western leaders consider to be anti-democratic.

Columbia University Russia expert Robert Legvold cites some of those policies enacted by the Russian leadership in the past few years.

"They have continued to clamp down on the public space, on independent voices - whether in the business community or within civil society, the NGO [non-governmental organization] community," Legvold said. "They have not allowed political parties to flourish. They certainly have constrained the media and continue to send messages about who should be able to appear on the media, including television in particular."

Legvold says in January Moscow briefly turned off its natural gas supplies to Ukraine in a pricing dispute - a move that disrupted deliveries to Europe and brought international condemnation.

Experts also say Russia is hosting the G-8 summit at a time when U.S. leaders are more openly critical of Moscow's internal policies. They point to the speech given by Vice President Richard Cheney in Lithuania last month in which he accused Russia of backsliding on democracy and using oil and gas - "as tools of intimidation and blackmail against neighboring countries."

All those events have prompted some U.S. lawmakers - including Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos - to urge President Bush to boycott the St. Petersburg G-8 summit.

But in a recent address in New York, Mr. Bush said it is important for him to attend.

"My strategy with Vladimir Putin is to be in a position where I can talk frankly to him. I have heard some say - do not go to the G-8," Mr. Bush said. "I think that would be a mistake for the United States not to go to the G-8, because I need to be in a position where I can sit down with him and be very frank about our concerns."

Mr. Bush said he will continue to tell Mr. Putin that he should not fear democracy.

Analysts are divided as to how far the United States and other western nations should go in criticizing Russia for its domestic policies.

Mark Brzezinski, former senior official on the National Security Council, says at the summit, Mr. Bush must continue to engage in what he calls the president's straight talk.

"This is an opportunity that should not be missed for the West to speak collectively and with strength to President Putin. Boycotting would preclude that opportunity," Brzezinski said. "But I certainly do not want the Western leaders and the American president to go to St. Petersburg and not speak out about these concerns, because that would only reinforce the worst tendencies of what we are seeing coming out of the Kremlin right now."

Other experts, such as Robert Legvold from Columbia University, say the best way to influence the Russian leadership is to discuss issues with them in a constructive way.

"For all of our criticism, the best way to handle the issues that we are negative about or that we're critical about is by engaging the Russians, not by trying to isolate them or by pillorying them," Legvold said. "I think people who believe that the way to handle Russia at this point is by condemning them and isolating them are mistaken."

Experts say Russian officials do not want the St. Petersburg G-8 summit to turn into a public forum for criticizing Moscow. Analysts also say it will interesting to see whether Western nations will use the meeting to openly chastise Russia.