Russia's Long Journey to the G8 Presidency
More than a decade has passed since President Boris Yeltsin was first given a seat at the table of the Naples summit of the world's most powerful countries, yet the question of whether Russia deserves membership in the Group of Eight remains contentious. Even as Russia this year holds the rotating G8 presidency, its battle for credibility among the world's industrialized democracies is far from over.
Especially since Russia's accession, the G8 has become more of a political organization than the grouping of economic powerhouses it began as. President Vladimir Putin will host G8 leaders in St. Petersburg in July for talks focusing on such varied topics as energy security, education and combating infectious diseases.
The first meeting of what would become the G8 took place in 1975, when French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing invited the leaders of Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States for talks at Rambouillet. In the wake of the oil crisis, the six leaders gathered to discuss economic, financial and monetary issues. Canada joined the group the next year, making it the G7.
The G8 door was opened to Russia thanks to politics as much as to economics. Its entry was based on a Western desire to encourage Russia to pursue democratic and market reforms, rather than Russia's economic prowess.
Today, the Russian economy is only the world's 10th largest -- behind India, China and Brazil, though bigger than that of G8 member Canada.
In the last year of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev attended the 1991 summit as an observer, meeting G7 leaders on the sidelines, and Yeltsin was a guest in 1992 and 1993.
Russia's involvement with the G7 expanded as Western leaders, especially U.S. President Bill Clinton, sought to integrate the new Russia into the world economy. At the 1994 summit in Naples, Russia was for the first time allowed to participate in the political discussions, part of the Clinton administration's strategy to pull Yeltsin Westward. This group became known as "G7 Plus 1."
The United States was the primary force behind the push to offer Russia full membership as a reward for its acquiescence to NATO expansion into former Soviet satellites. Russia was first treated as an equal during the "Summit of the Eight" in Denver in 1997, when NATO's push into the Baltic states and Poland was under way. The 1998 summit in Birmingham, England, marked the official creation of the G8, with Russia becoming a full-fledged member.
While Russia was offered membership as a carrot, some in the West have suggested using it as a stick, demanding that it be revoked over Moscow's policies on business and on human rights.
In February, a task force for the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations encouraged reviving the G7 within the G8 due to Russia's human rights record. "Even with Russia's inclusion in the G8, the G7 has continued to meet to discuss certain financial issues; selected political questions now require a similar format," the group said.
Amid the mounting criticism and the European jitters about energy security, Putin in February apparently felt compelled to defend Russia's role in the G8, signing his name on an article that was carried by several major newspapers worldwide. The article laid out the priorities of Russia's presidency and also sought to establish Russia's importance to the G8 as a guarantor of global energy security.
Russia is hoping that its role as an energy supplier means its seat is secure. "We are as necessary to the G7 as they are to us," presidential aide Igor Shuvalov said before last year's G8 summit. "We are prepared to guarantee stable energy supplies to our partners to secure their stable development for decades ahead."