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G8 Summit Overshadowed by Middle East Crisis


Experts say very little was accomplished at the just completed G-8 summit bringing together leaders of the world's major industrialized democracies. In this report from Washington, The summit was overtaken by events in the Middle East.

For the second year in a row, the work of the G-8 summit was overshadowed by dramatic international developments. Last year, a series of terrorist bombs killed more than 50 people in London as G-8 participants met in Gleneagles, Scotland.

This year the G-8 summit took place in St. Petersburg, Russia. But participants were forced to focus their attention on the Middle East, where a conflict erupted between Israeli troops and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

Experts say this was an important meeting for Russian president Vladimir Putin, because it was the first G-8 summit held on Russian soil. The Russian president also did not want the St. Petersburg meeting to turn into a forum for criticizing his internal policies seen by many western leaders as anti-democratic.

Marshal Goldman, a Russia expert with Harvard University, says that didn't happen.

"There were going to be some complaints about the moving backwards from the commitment to democracy, but maybe the explosions in the Middle East helped to detract from those kinds of concerns," said Mr. Goldman. "And I think people were just happy to get out of there with no major differences, given the sudden tension that developed in the Middle East."

Goldman says while there were no open criticisms of President Putin's policies, he believes Mr. Bush and other Western leaders made their concerns known, privately.

Analysts say the special personal friendship between Presidents Bush and Putin in evidence over the years was also on display at the summit, but Robert Legvold, a Russia expert with Columbia University says there were also some tense moments.

"Such as Bush talking about democracy in Iraq and promoting the idea of democracy generally, including Russia, and Putin firing back that he would just as soon not have democracy in the fashion of Iraq," he said. "That's not a real testiness or hostility, or certainly not a personal friction between the two, but it shows that on the specific policy issues, these two are now putting distance between themselves."

Legvold and Goldman say there is continuing disagreement on another policy issue, Russia's desire to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The United States is the only country still blocking Russia's accession to the world body. Washington says there are still some important issues to be resolved before Moscow can join.

Legvold says the big disappointment on the Russian side is that no agreement was reached.

"There was a clear effort on the part of both sides to try to negotiate around the clock and get this thing done so that it could be announced at the end of the Saturday bilateral summit," he added. "That failed because on at least two of the major remaining three issues, they haven't been able to dot the 'Is' and cross the 'Ts' - whether it's agriculture, intellectual property rights, access for insurance companies and banking companies in Russia."

But Legvold believes the two sides will ultimately reach an agreement in the next few months.

Overall, analysts say very little was accomplished at St. Petersburg. The participants produced non-controversial statements on such issues as Iran, North Korea, energy security, terrorism and global trade.

Legvold says even the final communiqué on the crisis in Lebanon was bland, urging both sides to end the violence.

"The final statement on Lebanon and Israel was walking a tightrope, or maybe even more accurately, trying to be all things to all people," he explained. "Because even though it had each of the country's positions in it, it was ambiguous enough so that each national leader could come away saying we got what we wanted. But when you get that kind of lowest common denominator, it really doesn't create much help for addressing the situation. What you see now is that the American administration is going to send its secretary of state to the Middle East. The French are going to go off on their own. Blair coordinated with the Bush administration and the Russians have said we are not going to take an initiative either to travel there, or in general, within the United Nations, that we are going to leave it to the Europeans."

Analysts say despite the lack of substantive agreements and policy initiatives, the St. Petersburg summit achieved one goal: it was a public relations success for President Vladimir Putin who made sure the meeting proceeded smoothly with, at the end, no major disagreements among the participants.