This week will be the 10th time a Russian president has attended
a Group of Eight summit as a full-fledged member of the club. The
first meeting to consist of eight members of equal status, and not
just seven members plus Russia, came in May 1998 in Birmingham,
England. Just three months before Russia’s default crisis,
President Boris Yeltsin convinced his colleagues that Russia had
entered an epoch of economic stability. One major theme during the
summit was that of rising tensions in Kosovo and clashes there
between Yugoslav army units and separatists. The G8 members called
for peace. Before the next summit in KЪln, Germany, however, NATO
took military action in Yugoslavia, and the same members found
themselves looking for ways to end the bloodshed.
Russia’s presence in the G8 caused disagreements right from the
start. There are no criteria for membership, but the club has
traditionally been an informal alliance of nations with leading
economies and democracies. For the first few years, Russia clearly
did not meet the economic requirements. But once its economy gained
strength, doubts appeared as to Moscow’s fulfillment of the
necessary political prerequisites.
Having gained membership, it’s unlikely that Russia would ever
surrender this status of its own accord. Given that there is no
formal procedure governing how countries join the G8, there is also
no mechanism for determining how a member can be removed.
Discussions about the state of the country’s democracy are
generally conducted before and after the summit, as it is
considered impolitic to discuss the internal affairs of member
nations during the event itself. The leaders gather not to
criticize one another, but to emphasize their global leadership
That role, however, is increasingly being questioned. Other
countries have emerged as centers of rapid growth and influence,
and there is decreasing confidence that the traditional superpowers
can alone resolve global problems.
Nevertheless, the upcoming summit in Heiligendamm, Germany,
provides an excellent opportunity to sum up Russia’s first decade
in the world’s most prestigious club.
What has the G8 gained from taking Russia aboard?
Perhaps the main thing the European powers, the United States,
Canada and Japan have gained by inviting Russia to join is
increased legitimacy for the organization. This was not clear
immediately, but has become more so as Moscow departed from its
exclusively pro-Western orientation and started to act as an
individual «player» in relations with both developed and developing
Despite questions about whether a country with Russia’s
political system and worldview belongs, its presence refutes
charges that the G8 is merely a «club of rich colonizers.» For the
international community, which is increasingly divided into
northern and southern camps, Russia’s swings between pro-Western
and anti-Western stances are the only sign of a degree of
diversification in the G8. Interestingly, neither China nor India,
the rising economic stars of the 21st century, seems to need
membership in this club as confirmation of their new status and
have not made a serious effort to join.
What, in turn, has Russia gained over the decade since it became
Moscow’s original desire to join was clearly based on
considerations of prestige. After the fall of the Soviet Union,
Moscow was in dire need of confirmation of its status as a major
power. Once Yeltsin had put down the parliament in 1993 and ushered
in a constitution that settled the question of who would run the
country, his attention turned to what was then the G7. Yeltsin
first attended a G7 summit in Naples, Italy, in the summer of 1994.
The organization represented the same kind of validation for
Yeltsin in 1994 as the WTO seems to for President Vladimir Putin
But there is more to the story than the issue of prestige. The
G8 is, perhaps, the only forum in which Moscow is called on to
consider seriously questions of global development beyond the scope
of its own immediate national interests.
The country’s current foreign policy is extremely pragmatic and
focused on a narrow, almost exclusively materialistic understanding
of its national interests. Despite the fact that it is relatively
wealthy by global standards, Russia has not quite overcome the
perception it acquired of itself in the 1990s as a «poor cousin»
among the family of nations. Russia is also wary of repeating the
experience of the Soviet Union, which doled out money around the
world with little concern for any financial return — an approach
that played a significant part in the country’s disintegration.
Left to its own devices, Moscow takes part actively in
discussions directly related to issues it sees as affecting its
national interests, including energy security, nuclear
nonproliferation, geostrategic stability and the territorial
integrity of states. But only through its participation as a member
of the G8 does it see the need to become involved in addressing
global issues. Great power status not only provides Russia with
greater opportunities to pursue its own interests, but also entails
responsibility for maintaining international stability, even if
this occasionally means limiting its own agenda.
After the catastrophic affects of the tsunami that hit Southeast
Asia in December 2004, Beijing, as the natural leader in the
hard-hit Pacific region, announced the allocation of a mere $2.6
million in aid. The reaction among the industrialized was
immediate, questioning whether the emerging economic giant
understood the international responsibilities its new stature
entailed. China’s leadership quickly got the point and within weeks
had upped the pledge to $83 million — a record sum for Beijing,
but still insignificant given the size of its economy.
The fact that Russia offered only technical assistance in
dealing with the catastrophe demonstrated that it is still only
learning to mesh its national interests with a more global
approach. Membership in the G8 is useful in this regard. This forum
forces Russia to do more than fall back into endless opposition and
negotiations, as we see today regarding the status of Kosovo, but
instead to put forward its own alternative solutions.
Unfortunately, the G8 is still not a very effective mechanism
for resolving international conflicts. The regulation of the
conflict in Kosovo was considered a major success in 1999, when
Germany last held the group’s rotating presidency. Today it is
clear that what was achieved was merely a postponement of the
problem. Germany will play host to G8 discussions of the issue once
At the 2003 summit in Evian, France, the group somehow managed
to heal the internal rift that had formed over the war in Iraq. At
last year’s summit in St. Petersburg the leaders announced a common
position regarding the war in Lebanon, although it was essentially
a policy of noninterference. Russian involvement gave greater
legitimacy to all of these talks.
But this legitimacy will face an even stiffer test in
Heiligendamm. For the first time within the organization’s current
framework there is talk of a return to the Cold War and an arms
race, as Putin warned before heading for Germany. This is the first
time the G8 will be called on to maintain the international
strategic balance as an internal matter.