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Russia Prepares to Host G8 Summit in St. Petersburg


Eight years after becoming a member of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, Russia is set to host the annual G8 Summit in St. Petersburg - President Vladimir Putin's hometown. It is a significant achievement for Mr. Putin, who has made restoring pride in all things Russian a hallmark of his presidency. That pride will be on evidence when he rolls out the red carpet this weekend, to visiting world leaders from the United States, Britain, China, Japan, Italy, France and Germany. But some fear the summit could produce heightened tensions between Russia and the West.

G8 leaders earlier agreed that the Summit agenda will focus on three areas of global concern: energy security, education and the fight against infectious diseases. But for Russia, a more personal issue takes precedence - that of proving itself worthy on the world stage.

Yevgeni Volk of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office tells VOA Russia wants to ensure, above all else, that it suffers no embarrassing political attacks during the high profile summit. Volk says, as Russians see it, it has already come under increasingly harsh criticism from the West about backtracking on human rights and democracy.

He says Russia also stands accused of using its growing energy riches as political blackmail against energy-starved neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine. Volk says he does not think President Putin will react to criticism lightly.

"He will try to involve them into a kind of discussion to persuade them that Russia is doing okay, that everything is being done right, that they, themselves, have many things to do to change inside their countries," he said. "I believe he will mention some human rights abuses in the United States, [and] the situation in France, where Muslim protesters had demonstrations last year. So, he will not be on the defensive, but will try to conduct some kind of offensive, as well.

Analyst Masha Lipman, of Moscow's Carnegie Institute, says the Russian president's tougher line has already been touted, in the weeks leading up to the summit.

"More or less, the statement is, 'this is how we are.' We do not think anything is wrong with it and we will not allow anyone to tell us to change and to dictate how we should go about our internal affairs," Lipman said.

Lipman says what is driving that message is, in part, the lack of a universal consensus among Group of Eight leaders on how Russia should be treated. In the absence of such a consensus, she says she is more optimistic than her colleague, analyst Volk, that President Putin will pull off a problem free summit.

"I think what is also important is that, in spite of all expectations, [President] Bush has not resorted to open criticism of Russia, lately," Lipman said. "So, I think, if we are to judge by the signs, it doesn't look like Bush is prepared to sound as critical as his top-ranking aides. I think probably [Mr.] Bush wants to preserve his good relations with [Mr.] Putin, in order to resolve the issues of major critical importance for the United States - first and foremost, Iran."

The United States would like to see Russia use its influence with Iran to get it to agree to halt its controversial uranium enrichment program, which the United States fears could be used to build a nuclear weapon. But, here again, Volk says the summit may do more to highlight differences between Russia and the West, rather than showcase their similarities.

"I believe that the questions of energy; how to deal with the Iraq crisis; how to deal with the Iran situation; how to deal with North Korea and its ambitions in the field of weapons of mass destruction; what should be the cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in the fight against terrorism: what should be the mode of operations in Central Asia, how to deal with new post-Sovietstates in Trans-Caucasian areas..... on all these issues, Russia and America have rather different views," he said.

Analysts agree the areas where the summit agenda does merge are few and include efforts to fight world poverty; halting the spread of HIV/AIDS; and boosting nuclear non-proliferation efforts around the world.

It is also widely believed that the United States may approve Russia's accession into the World Trade Organization; either right before the summit, when the Russian and American presidents are scheduled to meet Friday, July 14, or during the course of the weekend.

Meanwhile, an estimated 1,500 anti-globalization protesters are also expected in St. Petersburg, where they plan to hold what they call an alternative summit on the sidelines of the G8.

During past summits, tens-of-thousands of activists have participated in sometimes violent protests. But organizers of the alternative forum say they will stick to discussing the same issues of concern as the G8 ministers.

With the city hosting so many high profile visitors, police in Saint Petersburg are not taking any chances, closing the airport and port during the three-day event. Authorities have also tightened security at a nearby nuclear power plant, as well as launched a weapons amnesty program just days before the summit. This, after Russian police said they had discovered a small weapons cache in a building situated along a main road to be used by visiting G8 leaders.

Security concerns aside, President Putin's top summit envoy, Igor Shuvalov, says that, by the end of the summit, officials hope to see full acknowledgement that Russia is a valued and equal member of the Group of Eight.