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Keeping Russia Connected to the G8 Club

John Kirton
G8 Research Group

A version of this article appeared in the National Post, April 20, 2007.

The approach of the annual G8 summit, to be held in Heiligendamm, Germany, on June 6–8, 2007, has inspired the familiar questions about whether Russia is really a reliable member of this exclusive democratic club. Some see Russia rapidly returning to totalitarian dictatorship and say that the G8 should kick it out. Others claim that rising western oil imports fuel authoritarianism in energy exporters and recommend cutting the oil price so that Russia will become poor once again. Both arguments are deeply flawed.

Those who would remove Russia from the G8 forget that this strategy of exclusion failed at the League of Nations and helped bring the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War in its wake. They further forget that Russia's democratic revolution, unlike the bloody events in the United States in 1776 and France in 1789, was not a revolution from the streets but from the top, with Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin trying to impose political openness on a bureaucracy and society that had never had it before. Such a process will take some time to succeed – a fact understood by those G7 members with a parliamentary tradition, the Magna Carta and prime ministers who have won three consecutive terms. And with consistent 70% approval ratings, President Putin is vastly more popular than any of the other leaders in Russia or in the G8. For better or worse, he may be the best democrat with a popular mandate that Russians and their fellow G8 citizens have.

Nor would the world be better off if the Russians were out and the old Cold War back in. Those countries fighting to free democratic Afghanistan from totalitarian terrorists would not want a rival superpower supplying surface-to-air missiles to the Taliban, in a "payback" of what the West did to the invading Soviet armies twenty-five years ago. Russia is by far the best positioned G8 power to talk North Korea and Iran out of their nuclear ambitions and the latter's support for the terrorists of Hezbollah and Hamas. It is the only one who can get the Serbs to accept the hard-won settlement for a Kosovo that the West had gone to war to liberate from genocide in 1999. Democratic Japan, South Korea, Israel and an expanded Europe are much better off because Russia has been acting as a responsible G8 partner there. Russia's surging oil revenues have, under Putin's guidance, removed it from the dangerous state of instability of the 1990s, when the old G7 members regarded Russia as a third world country with nuclear arms. Russia's oil wealth has moved it from a consumer to a producer of development assistance, now aiding poor countries in Africa whose plight has been high on the G8 from Kananaskis in 2002 to Heiligendamm this year. Russia's refusal thus far to create a gas cartel alongside OPEC further helps the poor around the world. And as the G8 member responsible for bringing the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change into life, Russia is central to the outcome of this defining issue for Heiligendamm, and for the world in the decades ahead. And those in New York City, Washington DC, Madrid and London, not to mention Mississauga, would be much worse off if Russia were no longer the strongest supporter of the G8's campaign against terrorism anywhere in the world.

A reliably responsible Russia globally does require an ever more democratic Russia domestically. And here Russia's G8 membership has also proven its worth. As G8 host in 2006 Russia mounted the most well-organized, open, inclusive process for global civil society participation in the G8 since the club was created in 1975. It helped produce a G8 with greater respect for environmental values and social cohesion through respect for diversity. It has inspired Russia's Civil 8 to support cash-strapped colleagues from a G8 neighbour to participate in the summit process this year. And in 2006 the G8 Russia held a frank dialogue among the leaders, initiated by President Putin, about the condition and future of democracy in Russia itself. This is far more productive than shouting Cold War slogans through a new iron curtain that the West would create by kicking the Russians out of the G8 club.

Such occasions for frank talk are badly needed, in part to make it clear that the rest of the G8 does have a bottom line. Putin, with his 70% approval ratings, should be made to remember the lessons he learned first hand at the Genoa 2001 Summit and at St. Petersburg itself – that allowing excessive outbursts of unnecessary police brutality will harm his political capital at home now and his reputation as a retired two-term president after that. And he should be reminded that the generation, now– moving into adulthood, that will inherit his new Russia has grown up with an internet that allowed them to freely connect and crusade to build a better Russia and a better world. Still proudly communist China censors the internet. No member of a G8 – a club created to domestically protect and globally promote the value of open democracy – ever has.

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