St. Petersburg is a great place in early summer, when the "White Nights" bathe the city's imperial palaces and avenues. Small wonder, then, that Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to show off his hometown.
Three years ago, during the Tsarist capital's 300th anniversary, Putin hosted some 40 heads of state, ranging from US President George W. Bush and then German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov, who styles himself "Turkmenbashi," the father of Turkmen.
Human rights activists questioned the wisdom of endorsing the leader of a growingly authoritarian Russia. Yet Putin managed simultaneously to celebrate his anti-Iraq war cooperation with Europe, have the US swallow this, and be recognized in front of his local minions as a world leader.
This summer, St. Petersburg (dubbed by local wits "St. Putinsburg") may see a repeat performance: Russia will preside over a G8 summit for the first time, despite increasing authoritarianism, the ongoing bloody war in Chechnya, and now support for Iran's nuclear program.
Deflecting mounting criticism, Bush rejects appeals to boycott the summit.
"I need to be in a position where I can sit down with him [Putin] and be very frank about our concerns," Bush said in late March at Freedom House in Washington.
Is Bush wrong? The question of whether to meet with nasty but powerful people has dogged diplomacy since its inception, and both ends of the question have been argued endlessly -- and inconclusively. So it is probably best to examine the merits of each case separately, looking to precedents and agendas for guidance.
What is now known as the G8 was launched in 1975 as an informal group of the US, Europe's Big Four -- the UK, France, Germany, and Italy -- and Japan, with Canada added as an afterthought. It expanded to include Russia in 1998 for political, not economic, reasons. Russia's unhappy status as a democratizing but still potentially threatening former superpower played a role, as did its huge energy reserves, which is why China, incomparably more powerful economically but politically beyond the pale, was never invited to join. Indeed, though supposedly grouping the world's largest economies, the G8 now includes a country with an economy the size of Holland's, even if it is still excluded from deliberations of the other members' finance ministers.
In retrospect, Russian membership should probably be considered a mistake. Russia has stabilized under Putin, but its has become markedly less democratic. Its economy has boomed thanks to oil and gas exports, not to healthy market developments. The state still controls the economy as it sees fit, as the de facto renationalization of Yukos amply demonstrates.
On the other hand, the Kremlin has refrained from international adventurism, and rather consistently supported the US in its "war on terror." As European economies grew more dependent on Russian oil and gas, and the US military in Central Asia on Russian acquiescence, reversing the decision to admit Russia to the G8 became politically unthinkable. The 2003 summit confirmed Russia's privileged position. A repeat performance this summer would make it all but unshakeable.
Has "being frank about our concerns," the justification for hobnobbing with the likes of Putin, proven effective? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, although Russia has been backsliding since Putin took power in 2000, his policies might have been worse had he been ostracized. In any case, a US boycott of the forthcoming summit would be a Russian triumph, as it would throw the West into disarray.