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Russia: Moving forward or sliding back?

By By Tray Smith
Though the Group of Eight (G8) has no permanent secretariat or annual budget, its annual meeting of world leaders is arguably the most important foreign policy event of the year. It is the only point at which global leaders meet together for an extended period of time in order to focus on international issues. And the organization has proven itself to be productive, with the summits of the past two years leading to more global cooperation on climate change, terrorism, and world poverty. But no former meeting of the G8 will be as important as the one convening this weekend in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The G8 began as the G7 and was created for the purpose of enhancing collaboration between the world's seven most economically prosperous democratic countries. However, in 1991, in order to help bring their ailing Cold War foe into the community of civilized, democratic, and capitalistic nations, the G7 leaders invited Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbechev to their summit in London, thus forming the G7 plus Russia.
Russia was not then and is not now among the world's richest nations, but it was brought into the organization as an expression of good will by western leaders. They hoped that by including the country in western affairs, they could nurture a spirit of freedom among the leaders of a nation that had long suffered under the strains of communism. On that account, Russia has been a profound disappointment.
Now, participating not just as a supplement to the G7, but as a key member of the G8, Russian President Vladmir Putin is hosting the annual gathering of world heads-of-state. The Russian president is hoping to use the event to symbolize Russia's reemergence as a global power. However, more than becoming an influential world player, Russia should try to become a responsible and trusted world player, and so far it has not.
In recent years, a disturbing number of events that implicate Russia is still not ready to emerge from the shadows of the former Soviet Union have occurred. Not only has the Russian government begun to back track on democratic reforms in its own country, but it has actively sought to undermine the pace of those reforms in other former Soviet states (Georgia and Ukraine, to name examples.) Russia has also made clear that it is not afraid to use its vast energy reserves in order to blackmail foreign countries, most notably by cutting off a gas pipeline to the Ukraine last winter in an episode that disrupted the Ukrainian energy supply for days. Russia has also refused to assist the United States in Iraq. The government has welcomed the leaders of the terrorist organization Hamas, which governs Palestine, to Moscow. Russia has not engaged Iran forcefully over the Iranian government's uranium enrichment program, and it has thus far prevented the forward movement of meaningful U.N. Security Council action on that issue. Russia also attended a summit of foreign leaders in China to which Iran was invited while the U.S. was left out. The Russian military has participated in war games with the Chinese, and along with China, Russia is halting meaningful punitive action from being taken in response to North Korea's missile test. Although Russia has been experiencing strong economic growth, the state has begun to exert more control over the countries private sector, most notably the energy industry. These problems represent a critical challenge to the U.S.-Russo alliance.
However, the United States is in a position of strength. Currently, Russia wants to be admitted to the World Trade Organization and it wants access to the lucrative business of storing nuclear waste generated by nations using U.S. nuclear technology. Before it caves to Russia's demands, the Bush administration should demand to see concrete results from the Russian government. It should tie Russia's acceptance into these programs to the progress of democratic reforms in Russia and Russia's willingness to cooperate on important international issues such as Iran and North Korea. More than anything, Russia wants to be respected as something more than a backwards state, and President Bush should send the strong message that it will be, as long as it resist the internal urge to return to its dark past.
Iran, North Korea, and terrorism in general have been left off the official agenda for the St. Petersburg summit, which is instead scheduled to focus on global education and global energy consumption. However, issues of global security will likely come up during the discussions, as they should. The way Russia handles those issues at this summit and during future months will be critical to determining Russia's true global intentions. And observing the way Russia handles its role as host of this year's G8 will be critical to determining whether or not Russia can become a responsible power player.
That is the bottom line.
Tray Smith is a political columnist for the Atmore Advance. He can be reached for contact at tsmith_90@hotmail.com. His column appears weekly.