- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

MOSCOW — A meeting of the Group of Eight finance ministers beginning today threatens to be overshadowed by tensions over President Vladimir Putin’s record on democracy and Russia’s reliability as an energy supplier.

The two-day session, attended by Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, is the first important meeting to be hosted by Russia in its role as this year’s president of the powerful G-8 major industrial nations.

Energy security, education, efforts to fight infectious diseases and debt relief for poor countries are all on the agenda. But the tone has been set by Washington’s public questioning of Russia’s fitness to lead the group and Moscow’s prickly response.

Despite its relatively small economy — about the size of Portugal’s — Russia was added to the G-7 club of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States in 1998.

But the West’s relationship with Russia has become strained since Mr. Putin moved in recent years to concentrate more power in the Kremlin. And despite some cooperation on containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Mr. Putin’s foreign policy has often been at odds with the West, especially with Russian support for autocratic regimes in Belarus and Uzbekistan.

On Sunday, Sen. John McCain called on G-8 leaders to boycott the group’s July summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, saying the country “is neither a democracy nor one of the world’s leading economies.” He accused the Kremlin of being “in pursuit of autocracy at home and abroad.”

Concerns about Russia’s commitment to G-8 principles peaked after gas supplies to Ukraine were cut off on Jan. 1 in a price dispute between Moscow and a former ally that has taken a pro-Western stance. The move disrupted gas supplies to Europe, which buys about half its natural gas from Russia.

Moscow insisted it was simply asking Ukraine to pay fair market prices. But senior U.S. officials told The Washington Times this week they believe Russia is using its control of Soviet-era pipelines to hold down purchase prices in Central Asia while skimming huge profits through corrupt middlemen.

Repeated calls seeking comment from the Russian Embassy in Washington yesterday were not returned.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly criticized Russia’s actions in the Ukraine gas dispute last month, saying there was a “distance between Russian behavior” and “what would be expected of a responsible member of the G-8.”

At a subsequent press conference with French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained that a reporter had asked Mr. Douste-Blazy “if [he] wanted to join the criticism of Russia, and did not ask me if I wanted to join the criticism of the United States.”

“It hasn’t been a very successful start” to Moscow’s tenure as G-8 chairman, said Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

“The dispute with Ukraine created a lot of concerns over Russia’s role as an energy superpower at the same time as this unfortunate new law on [nongovernmental organizations] was passed.”

Also in January, Mr. Putin signed a law imposing strict curbs on NGOs — one of the few areas of public life outside state dominance after a Kremlin drive to consolidate control over parliament and regional governments, the media and strategic business sectors.

The London-based Foreign Policy Center, a prominent British think tank with links to Prime Minister Tony Blair, released a report last week saying Russia’s presidency of the G-8 was “a PR disaster.”

The center released what it called a “G-8 scorecard” — assessing Russia according to 12 criteria tied to the G-8’s founding declaration, including openness and freedom of speech, rule of law, and economic weight in the world. In no category did Russia score better than “sporadic compliance with G-8 norms” and in many instances it received the worst possible score.

“Russia’s faltering chairmanship of the G-8 raises fundamental questions about whether Russia should be a member at all,” the center’s director, Stephen Twigg, said with the release of the report.


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