Interview with Igor Shuvalov, Assistant to the President of Russia, in Connection with the Russian Presidency of the G8
Published in the Magazine Itogi No. 4 (502), January 2006
Question: Igor Ivanovich, can Russia's "coming out", that is, its presidency of the G8 be included among national projects?
Shuvalov: Our coming out, that is, joining the G8, took place a long time ago. Our presidency of it is more like a first ball which we have to organize and conduct at the highest level. The St. Petersburg summit will be the foreign policy highlight of 2006. The issues it will consider will be of key significance for the internal policies of each of the eight countries. They are energy security, the fight against infectious diseases, and education, topics that have to do not only with international global cooperation but with the solution of similar problems at home. So, the declared agenda will be vastly significant for our internal policy because we are working in all these areas here in Russia too. As you know, education and healthcare are among priority national projects. As for energy security, without it the quality of life and of the economy as a whole is impossible to ensure.
Question: How may this summit and our presidency of the club influence the state of affairs in Russia?
Shuvalov: In setting the agenda, the President proceeded from the assumption that the discussion should lead to the solution of this or that problem or at least to proposals being made on how to solve them. And not only in the global sense, but with due account of the immediate interests of the citizens in our country. For example, the fight against infectious diseases. Many say that a pandemic of bird flu is inevitable. The Russians should be aware that they are not alone in this battle, that we have partners. Or take the problems connected with education. For example, we intend to pay great attention to professional education which is perceived in the world as the key factor of development. Already special criteria have been created for the recognition of our national education abroad. This is done to so that the rights of our high- and medium-level professionals are respected in any labor market and that the documents confirming their skills are recognized by our partners. Conditions should also be created so that the countries that are not very highly developed and need the support of the leading states could invest resources in education and the G8 countries could help them. Or take energy. It is not only about oil and gas whose sale some people interpret in a simplistic way, only as a means to replenish our budget. The world energy prices have a direct impact on the price that we all pay for our petrol. And there is a global question there: does the present-day energy sector contribute to world economic growth or, on the contrary, hold it back? All this has a direct relevance to each and every one, including in our own country.
Question: You said in your time that the G8 needs Russia as much as Russia needs the G8. How equal is the cooperation?
Shuvalov: I think all the talk as to whether Russia is by right a member of the G8 is absolutely meaningless. It matters only to those who intend to play that card in the political sphere. These people will continue to make a mountain out of a molehill and repeat the same thing again and again: "Russia does not fit into the circle of democratically and economically developed states." But if the same criterion were to be applied to other G8 countries, we would find that in fact few of the members of that club qualify to be its members. All the states have a host of problems. Things there are not all that smooth, including their record of compliance with classical standards of democracy.
We are not at present members of the financial mechanism of the G8, which is still referred to as G-7. But it does not infringe upon our rights in any real way. In effect all our partners are well aware that Russia is an inalienable part of that group, just as important as all the rest. And that without Russia not a single global task can be solved -- be it the fight against international terrorism, drug addiction, various diseases, or the creation of a worldwide financial and economic architecture. I am sure that deep down this is understood by the people who constantly criticize us.
Moscow sees the G8 summit in St. Petersburg as the most important foreign policy event of 2006. But to conduct it at a proper level Russia will have to do a lot of work as the country that holds the chairmanship.
Question: By the way, why does the financial G8 still operate in the "7 ½" format?
Shuvalov: It is certainly a strange situation. Opinions on this matter are divided among our G8 partners. Some countries consider the situation to be unnatural. The leaders of these states insist that Russia become a full-fledged member of the club as soon as possible. It is simply ridiculous to discuss the issues proposed for the summit agenda without us. How can one talk about energy security and not include Russia in the financial mechanism connected with these problems? But there are those who think that it is too soon yet to bring Russia into the financial part of the club. They argue that in terms of nominal figures our country is only the 16th economy in the world and that our participation in the donor programs is much more modest than that of the other G8 countries. Speaking about our modest contribution to donor programs, that is true. But in terms of its impact on the global economic processes, Russia in the coming years will be more important than many of the other countries which form this select club. So, proceeding from the interests of all the G8 states -- not the US, Britain or Russia, but the common interests of the club -- our non-inclusion in the financial wing harms everyone. I think the talk that it is too early to admit Russia there is politically motivated. Those who think so just do not understand the real situation in Russia, they do not understand how deep our democratic transformations are, how seriously we are reforming the social sphere and what is happening to the country's economy. Rather, they see a superficial picture, which reminds them of the old system of tightening of the screws. But that is not so. And if you look at the system of our economic relations, you can see what a conservative economic policy we are pursuing at present. It is only in recent times that our financial policy has become less stringent owing to objective factors connected with the high prices of oil and gas. We still have problems with inflation. But we do not conceal our problems, nor do we conceal that we are committed to staying our chosen course. We are improving the systems of education and healthcare, we continue the pension reform -- and we are doing it all much faster than many of our West European partners. One has to be blind not to see what is happening in Russia at present. So, the caution that some of our G8 partners display on the issue of including our country in the financial part of the club is totally unjustified and it is political rather than economic in character.
Question: What role does the country holding the presidency play, is it just a matter of protocol or does it have broader powers?
Shuvalov: Protocol activities are an important part of the process, but it is only an accompanying part. In the first place the country holding the presidency has exclusive powers in choosing the themes for the summit. Of course, it does not do it separately, but taking into account the opinions of its partners: there are preliminary consultations, sounding out of the interest of partners in the declared topics. But determining the agenda is the exclusive prerogative of the presiding country. It is also responsible for preparing the materials for the summit. There is within the G8 a special mechanism of sherpas (representatives of the leaders of member countries) who meet on a monthly basis, discuss the substance of the issues moving step-by-step towards agreeing the documents. All the documents should be agreed before the summit. The guests of the summit as a rule, take a critical stand and are very forthcoming in expressing their wishes regarding the things that do not suit them. In these conditions, the role of the President who coordinates the process of achieving a consensus, cutting off everything that is unacceptable is hard to overestimate. The organization part is our heavy burden. Take, for example, the problem of security. To deal with all these issues we have set up a special organizing committee headed up by presidential aide Sergey Prikhodko. It has been working for more than a year.
Question: What do you think about putting a period after the figure "8" and not admitting anyone else into the club?
Shuvalov: Only the leader of the country can make pronouncements on such issues. In this connection, I can only recall how the club was born. Initially there were five members. Now there are eight. If one imagines still more people sitting at the same table, the purpose of their getting together may be lost. Of course, one may propose to shift the work to the "big twenty". But then one has to be aware that the "twenty" won't be able to work just as effectively. Because there are mechanisms for discussing key issues within the framework of the G8 that are very hard to replicate in a different format. There the conversation is utterly frank, sometimes tough, but it produces concrete proposals on how to go about this or that problem.
The Russian sherpa in the G8 is convinced that global world problems cannot be solved without Russia. This is particularly manifest in the sphere of energy in which our country is beginning to play the key stabilizing role.
Question: At the unofficial level in the West threats are being made to suspend Russia's membership of the G8. Is it bluffing or is it a real threat?
Shuvalov: All this talk is unrealistic. These are "stars" that some people feel it is good for them to lit from time to time. Because we don’t quite act in the way that these people would like us to. But we think that we are doing the right thing. This kind of talk has resumed and even intensified in connection with the discussion here of the draft law on non-governmental organizations. But it was just a draft. The President has explained it. We want to create a mechanism similar to the one that operates in other developed countries. Nobody has put any other goals before the parliament or the government. But in response they have been telling us: if such a law is adopted, Russia should be expelled from the G8. I think it is impossible to expel us. It would lead to dire consequences for all. I repeat that global world problems cannot be solved without Russia. After all, everyone understands that energy is the key development factor. And Russia is increasingly playing the key stabilizing role in that way.
Question: Speaking about energy. What is Russia going to propose to its partners in this area?
Shuvalov: The Russian President intends to come up with certain initiatives and it is my job to finalize the corresponding document with my fellow sherpas. We have held consultations with experts representing all the G8 countries. We have considered the issues of global economic development, the implications of energy for mankind, what factors contribute to its development and how to provide various countries with enough energy resources not to limit their economic growth. To avoid that, countries should pay according to certain rules. And if such limitations do arise, it is necessary to adopt rules of behavior in such crisis circumstances. Rules on how to achieve the necessary balance of interests between those who produce energy resources and those who acquire them. It is a very complicated issue which will be considered from diverse angles, taking into account every point of view.
Question: Are topics such as the gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine discussed by the G8?
Shuvalov: The G8 sets the main trends -- and that is its main role. Undoubtedly, a common approach will be worked out to transit countries with a proposal regarding how they can improve their transport infrastructure. It will not be the case that one set of decisions will apply to Russia as an exporting country and a totally different set to Ukraine as a transit country. The producing country should have an opportunity to export its commodities by various routes, even when difficulties arise with transit. So, there is no chance that double standards will be pushed through in the solution of that problem.
Question: Some of our neighbor countries are unhappy about the building of the North European Gas Pipeline. Will the issue be discussed at the summit?
Shuvalov: The summit is to work out the common rules of behavior in the energy sphere. Of course, if the G8 leaders feel like discussing the claims of Poland and the Baltic countries regarding the construction of the North European Gas Pipeline, they will do so. But as a rule, such issues are not discussed in the G8 format. The leaders discuss their vision of the development of certain institutions in a global way, for many years ahead. This is their main task. It has to be a long-term decision and not guesswork as to whether to build the North European Gas Pipeline across Poland or bypassing it. The important thing is to make sure that Europe could get commodities from Russia and other states by various routes. And if it is more economic to build the gas pipeline bypassing Poland, so it will be.
Question: How is the preparation for the summit going? Will that event eclipse the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the Northern Capital in terms of its scope?
Shuvalov: The organizing committee is working according to plan. All the main summit meetings will take place in Strelnya, the same location where some events to mark the 300th anniversary of the city took place. But there is a big difference between the celebration of the 300th anniversary and the 2006 summit. The summit is strictly a working meeting, in closed and enlarged format and one on one. The leaders continue their work over breakfast, lunch and dinner. The G8 summit is so full of substance in its spirit and character that it is hard to compare it with any other international meetings. The July meetings will mostly take place on Sundays. This is partly to do with the questions of security so as not to increase congestion in the city and the oblast. Traffic in St. Petersburg will not be stopped. Everything is being planned in such a way as to make sure that the event does not have an adverse impact on the normal life of the citizens. There will be no festive events. Gala concerts open to the public and not only to the guests of the summit and devoted to one of the summit topics may take place several weeks ahead of the meeting. They will feature the best performers in the world. To give you an idea, it may be similar to a concert that took place in London's Hyde Park last year. On that occasion a huge amount of sponsors' money and donations from citizens was raised which was used to address international humanitarian issues, especially in Africa. That concert had wide public and political resonance and provided a bridge between politicians and ordinary citizens in solving universal human problems.
Question: All this sounds fine. But on the other hand, you remember that major terrorist attacks took place in London last year. Aren't you afraid that by planning these concerts you will put people's lives at serious risk?
Shuvalov: First of all, the terrorist acts occurred after the Hyde Park concert. Explosions on the London underground occurred right during the G8 summit. As for security measures, we are not going to sit on our hands. The relevant services have a concrete plan and they will follow it. But in this connection one can never give a cast-iron guarantee. People who attend such events should understand that there is an element of risk. I am saying this without a specific reference to the 2006 summit. The presence of international terrorism means that this risk exists everywhere and always. One should proceed from the universal rule: trust the security service, but be on your guard.
Question: Igor Ivanovich, the office we are talking in used to be Leonid Brezhnev's office. Are the ghosts of the past haunting you? Are they perhaps hindering you in your reforming activities?
Shuvalov: I hasten to reassure you that it does not in any way hinder our work. And, oddly enough, this office has a very good aura. As for the reforming spirit which the former Soviet General Secretaries had or did not have, it did not depend only on them. They were working within such tough political and ideological constraints when any reforming steps called for a tremendous effort and sometimes were simply impossible. They were hamstrung in their actions by a peculiar mechanism of decision-making, the party nomenklatura and the whole Soviet system of government watched everything they said and did. Whatever thoughts might have entered their heads in this office, it didn't mean that they could implement them. Now everything is different. If you look at what has been done during the past 15 years, especially during the last five years, you will see that it is a totally different country.
Question: In short, we deserve holding the presidency of G8?
Shuvalov: I believe that our chairmanship is well earned and the topics that we have chosen for discussion at the 2006 summit are at the focus of attention in the world and in Russia.