A G8 Flashback for Russia

g8summit2006_070909.jpgRemember the good ‘ole times from back in the summer of 2006?  Russia was about to host the G8 Summit, Anna Politkovskaya and Stanislav Markelov were still alive and working hard, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky had only been in the gulag 2.5 years and undergone only one show trial.  Earlier that spring, the Council on Foreign Relations also published quite a critical paper entitled “Russia’s Wrong Direction” which ruffled some feathers, but would later of course turn out to be quite prescient.

The report was chaired by former Congressman Jack Kemp, who expressed optimism that the G8 Summit to be held in St. Petersburg that summer could be a useful forum to get things back on track and enlist Russia’s help on a number of important global issues: “The G8 summit may be a watershed on many of these issues–Iran and energy in particular. It’s a real opportunity to lock in more helpful Russian policies. But if we don’t see progress, people are going to ask what Russia is doing in the G8 in the first place.

My, how things have changed.  It’s now been three years, and rule of law has, well, imploded, democracy – not even Gerhard Schröder is selling that one anymore, while in terms of Iran, the Kremlin is actually boasting about defending the ayatollahs from criticism.  Back in St. Petersburg that year, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Junichiro Koizumi, Romano Prodi, and the rest hobnobbed with Vladimir Putin and did their best to imagine that Russia was fulfilling the minimum required standards for G8 membership (funny how out of that list, only one leader is still in power).

Yet despite all this, no one seems to be asking Jack Kemp’s question this year.

Back when Russia was first granted admission to the G8, I heard arguments from both sides from observers I trust and respect.  On the one hand, some opposition members felt that G8 membership marked the end of any inclination or sense of obligation felt by the Kremlin to reform – prestige and recognition was granted on its own terms.  On the other hand, I heard from many observers that incorporating Russia into the G8 was deserved, necessary, and useful in shaping more constructive and open policies.  I certainly understand this argument in terms of the WTO, that it is better to incorporate than to isolate.

While this debate has largely disappeared (perhaps due in party to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and non-reaction of the West?), I did see one piece this week by Reuben F. Johnson published in the conservative Weekly Standard which argued that Russia has no business being in the G8.  When the G7 performed its economic and political audit to examine Russia’s qualifications for membership, Johnson argued that it “reads like Delta Fraternity brother John Blutarsky’s (played by thelate John Belushi) mid-term grade points in the National Lampoon film”Animal House.”

At the very least, it is interesting that the World Bank estimates that Brazil had a larger GDP than Russia in 2008, and that this gap is set to widen for 2009.

I don’t think that the debate should be about kicking Russia out of the G8.  Membership has already been granted for whatever reason, and it seems unreasonable to do so given Russia’s size, location, economy, energy supplies, and, yes, their nuclear stockpiles.  The debate we should be having is about treating Russia like a normal and not exceptional member of the G8.  China has the fourth largest economy in the world, yet is not included in the group because it is not democratic.  Perhaps we can talk about Russia deserving to be in the G8 only so long as the other members deserve to have Russia make a real effort to conform to the groups norms and standards, befitting of its importance to the international community.

If Russia does not show any willingness to reform politically, then these membership standards are completely meaningless.  But that’s just what CFR was pointing out three years ago.