The G-8 in St. Petersburg A Former Superpower Rises Again
The leaders of the G-8 group of major industrialized nations are meeting this week for the group's first summit in Russia. The Kremlin, bolstered by billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues, comes to the meeting with an important message: The West should finally accept the fact that Moscow has returned to the world stage.
Host city St. Petersburg is gearing up for its global debut. On Saturday morning, the heads of state of the world's leading capitalist economies will meet at the Constantine Palace on the city's outskirts. It will mark the first time that a G-8 summit is being chaired by a former KGB officer.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ought to be pleased. The elaborate palace, built by Grand Duke Constantine, was renovated at a cost of 220 million ($280 million). Twenty new luxury villas, complete with saunas and swimming pools, were built in the neighborhood to house the prominent guests attending the G-8 summit. The city's airport will be closed to civil aviation for three days. Stray dogs and rats have been purged from St. Petersburg's city center. Five thousand homeless were registered and fingerprinted so that they could be shipped out to the countryside. An additional 80 security cameras were installed along Nevsky Prospect, the grand avenue between the Moscow train station and the Winter Palace, the residence of the former czars.
St. Petersburg has recently witnessed a spate of apparently racially motivated attacks on foreigners. A Senegalese man was shot in early April and a man from Mali was stabbed in February. A student from Cameroon was killed last Christmas, preceded by a student from Congo.
According to Mayor Valentina Matviyenko, the killings had nothing to do with racism. Some may call St. Petersburg the "capital of xenophobia," but Matviyenko believes the attacks were simply ineffectual "attempts to discredit the G-8 summit" -- and, by extension, Putin. The president plans to use the meeting in his native city as a stage to flaunt what he believes are Russia's strengths: tight management, self-confidence and a renewed vigor.
Second fiddle no longer
Moscow's political elite has been steadily drumming a new message into the heads of its guests from around the world, a message that has already taken hold in their own country: Russia, reborn from the ashes of the Soviet Union and newly awash in oil and gas revenues running into the billions of dollars, no longer feels compelled to play second fiddle to the world's major powers.
Russia's newfound self-confidence stems mainly from the perception that the vast nation, which stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific, has already "been a global power for several years when it comes to economic growth," as Vladimir Putin announced shortly after the country's national holiday on June 12. His sentiments echoed the staccato chants of a new national youth movement, Nashi (Ours): "Russia was and will always be a superpower."
Emboldened by Putin's comments, even the generally measured Economy Minister German Gref, has begun speaking in nationalistic superlatives. According to Gref, the annual World Economic Forum in February, a truly essential date for decision-makers, ought to take place in Russia in the future. "After all, what is Davos? A village in Switzerland. St. Petersburg is the world's most beautiful city."
Dmitry Medvedev, first deputy prime minister and a candidate to succeed Putin in 2008, added his contribution to the current round of self-congratulatory statements coming from the Kremlin with a comment on the dollar crisis: "The current state of the economy in the United States -- the home of the world's only reserve currency -- is questionable." For this reason, he added, it is Russia's "moral right" to search for new alternatives. According to Medvedev, the ruble could serve as an additional global reserve currency. Indeed, on July 1, just two weeks ahead of the St. Petersburg summit, the Kremlin announced that the Russian currency is now "freely convertible."
Shortly before the G-8 summit, the Kremlin also called for a new political and moral reserve currency, a counterweight to the US's dominant worldview. In a speech to a group of ambassadors in late June, Putin said, without specifically naming the United States or the Iraq war, that the principle of domination known as "Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi" -- "What Jupiter is permitted, the ox is not " -- should not apply to questions of international conflict resolution. Instead, he said, "uniform, universal standards" based on international law should apply.
Much of the toxic rhetoric Moscow is currently hurling westward isn't necessarily wrong merely because it is being met with such displeasure in the European Union and the United States. The contention that the West employs what Putin and his entourage call "double standards" in its dealings with Russia is occasionally echoed elsewhere in the world, in China, Latin America and the Arab states, for example. But the new Moscow is adopting an excessively vigorous, almost boisterous tone leading up to the G-8 summit, all the while openly campaigning for its right to be a member of the same club it so vehemently criticizes. It's as if a total school outcast had suddenly decided to invite home the most popular children in his class, but only under the condition that they appreciate the honor being bestowed upon them.
Playing chess with energy supplies
When the leaders of the world's most powerful industrialized nations come together on Saturday in the marble ballroom of St. Petersburg's Constantine Palace, the talk will center on petroleum and natural gas. The security of the world's energy supply is the main topic at this G-8 summit.
The West is well aware that Russia is now a key player when it comes to energy. Putin's realm has the world's largest natural gas reserves, and Gazprom, the country's monopolistic gas supplier, is already the third-largest corporation on the globe. Russia is second only to Saudi Arabia in oil production. Its booming economy has grown by six percent on average each year since 1999.
US President George W. Bush, the first and so far only politician who, upon gazing into Putin's pale-blue eyes, was convinced that he had discovered the "soul" of the Russian president, will have two options in St. Petersburg: either he pursues the brusque approach taken by Vice President Dick Cheney, or he observes the rules of diplomacy.
During a visit to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in early May, Cheney fired a series of broadsides against Russia, triggering a slugfest between the two powers ahead of the G-8 summit and, at the same time, rhetorically ratcheting up already tense relations between Washington and Moscow.
Graphic: Among the Greats
What liberal Moscow newspaper Kommersant later dubbed "the sharpest attack on Russia an American leader has made since the end of the Cold War" was only heightened by the fact that Cheney followed up his tirade by then traveling to oil- and gas-rich Kazakhstan, where he had nothing but praise for that country's autocratic long-term ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev: "All Americans are tremendously impressed with the progress that youve made in Kazakhstan in the last 15 years."
Appearances like Cheney's -- the man who many believe used lies to push for the Iraq war -- make it easy for Putin to stand before the cameras of his state-owned television networks and complain about double standards in the West's treatment of Russia, his eyes narrowed and his words issuing forth from clenched jaws.
Putin, of all people, should know that morality takes a distant third place to natural gas and oil in the global competition for fossil fuels. Russia's relations with the despotic rulers in neighboring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are currently blossoming, thanks to long-term supply contracts. But the administration in Washington has its own share of veterans from the oil and gas industry: Bush, who, following in his father's footsteps, earned his wealth in the oil business; Cheney, who formerly served as CEO of Halliburton, a giant in the petroleum services industry; and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a former board member at Chevron.
According to the Russian president's logic, he doesn't need to take criticism about Moscow's democratic and human rights deficiencies seriously as long as the West remains more interested in oil prices and pipelines. In his address to the nation, he made it clear that Russian-American relations have reached their lowest point since the end of the Soviet Union. "As the saying goes," he said, his comments directed at the United States, "comrade wolf knows whom to eat, it eats without listening and it's clearly not going to listen to anyone.''