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Russia: Controversy Mars G8 Presidency

(ITAR-TASS) December 29, 2006 -- Russia's reign as G8 president, which comes to a close on January 1, began and ended with controversy.

As it took over the post from Great Britain in January, Russia was embroiled in a nasty dispute with Ukraine over natural gas prices. The fallout led many in the West to accuse Moscow of using energy as a weapon and to question its reliability as a supplier.

And as Russia prepares to turn over the G8 leadership to Germany on New Year's, the Kremlin is battling deep suspicions about its potential role in the murder of former security officer Aleksander Litvinenko and journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Now, a new gas crisis -- this time with Belarus -- is the latest scandal to cast long shadows over what Russians hoped would be a triumphant year.

Shared Disappointment

Moscow wanted to use the G8 presidency, particularly the organization's July summit in St. Petersburg, to showcase its renewed influence in the world.

Many in the West hoped that holding such a high-profile position would motivate Russia to be a more predictable and reliable partner. But as Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office explains, Russia and the West were both disappointed.

"The expectations for Russia's G8 presidency were not fulfilled on either side. Russia was counting on using its G8 leadership to improve its position in the West, to improve its image and to strengthen its position as an energy power in the West. It sought to conclude agreements that would support its advantageous position on the [energy] market," Volk says.

The West was equally frustrated in its desire to gain access to Russia's energy market and in its hopes for Moscow to be more cooperative in resolving "frozen conflicts" in Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

Differing Visions

Part of the problem lies in the different ways Russia and the West -- particularly Western Europe -- view multilateral institutions like the G8.

So how then did Russia see it?

It was the year of pipeline politics (epa)

Timofei Bordachev, the director of studies at the Moscow-based Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, says Russia came to the G8 as a regional power with a regional agenda.

"The main point was the question of energy security, but unfortunately this was turned more into Russia conducting negotiations with energy consumers than an overall vision or strategy," Bordachev says.

It was the year that saw Russia's natural gas monopoly Gazprom vastly expand its assets and Russian oil companies extend their reach abroad. It was also the year that saw Moscow steadfastly refuse to sign an Energy Charter with the European Union, which would allow foreign firms greater access to the Russian market.

WTO Entry

But perhaps Russia's biggest success was winning U.S. approval in November to join the World Trade Organization. U.S. objections had been a major hurdle to Russia's long-sought membership of the organization. Russia still needs to sign agreements with several countries before joining the organization.

But perhaps the enduring legacy of Russia's G8 presidency will be symbolic.

James Nixey, the Russia and Eurasia program manager at the London-based Chatham House research institute, says the presidency wasn't just about pomp and circumstance.

"For the Russians at least, it is about showing that you are in the top eight players in the entire world, and that's very important to Russia -- to show that it still means something, to show that it is still significant, that it is still relevant," Nixey says.

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