- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG — A Russian program to aid the world’s poorest countries is a sign of the Kremlin’s growing confidence, but some critics question the motives behind the largess.

Although Russia not long ago was a land of rationing and was kept afloat with help from the International Monetary Fund, surging demand for its oil and natural gas is creating a different situation.

This new reality was reflected at a meeting of the Group of Eight (G-8) finance ministers over the weekend, during Russia’s first chairmanship of the group.

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Russia plans this year to cancel $700 million in debt owed by poor countries, while accelerating its own debt repayments to the Paris Club of creditor nations.

Of the total, $250 million will be channeled to poverty-reduction projects under an agreement with the World Bank. The projects involve combating infectious diseases, including malaria, and developing energy infrastructure.

At a press conference Friday, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz hailed the steps by Russia as a “clear demonstration of the role that Russia started to play as an emerging donor — I would say as a new partner.”

At the weekend meeting, Russia also secured a commitment from the G-8 ministers to develop the infrastructure and legal framework of poor countries so as to ease the entry of private investors into their markets.

Some critics fear that this new emphasis on combating poverty is a ruse by Russia, whose role as a major energy producer is linked closely to its relations with neighbors such as Ukraine and with its stance on issues such as the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Russian press and broadcast outlets have been unenthusiastic about the government’s new interest in Third World countries, reflecting the fact that a quarter of Russians live in poverty.

Interest groups involved in poverty relief in Africa point to a series of instances in which wealthy countries have offered aid in exchange for access to energy resources, often with negative consequences.

Kirsty McNeill, a senior officer with the private group DATA — a name based on the group’s four main overlapping areas of interest: debt, AIDS, trade and Africa — pointed to China’s search for energy resources in African countries such as Sudan, which she said had helped to prop up a regime with a poor human rights record.

“Energy matters for Africa. It’s needed to store food and medicines, to make schools function. But when new donors speak about energy, it’s a double-edged sword. It would be terrible if they were speaking of a new scramble for oil,” Mrs. McNeill said.

Mr. Kudrin said Russia was seeking new clients in Africa and the Middle East for its nuclear technology, having already built nuclear power stations in India and China.

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