Putin’s Russia is centre stage for G8 summit

By Christian Lowe

ST PETERSBURG- Group of Eight leaders will gloss over differences on energy security at a summit in Russia this weekend, saving the sharpest exchanges for first-time host President Vladimir Putin over democracy.

Away from the low-key f

ormal agenda for the summit, diplomats say leaders will discuss steps to contain the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, while U.S. and Russian negotiators are thrashing out a trade deal for their two presidents to sign.

Russia also wants world powers to tackle an escalation of the conflict in the Middle East and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the hosts were preparing proposals aimed at putting a halt to the outbreak of violence.

U.S. President George W. Bush and other leaders will gather in the once-ruined Constantine Palace, now lavishly restored at Putin’s initiative in his home town.

The grandiose venue mirrors how Russia has reclaimed its world power status, a journey capped by hosting the G8 summit.

But political activists say the authorities have used arrests and intimidation to silence them during the summit, which critics say points to a culture of tight political control that makes Russia the odd man out in the G8.

The summit’s final communique is not expected to mention democracy. Leaders will instead use bilateral meetings with Putin to broach concerns that he is concentrating too much power in his hands while squeezing the opposition and pressure groups.

“Our job is to continue to remind Russia that if she wants to have good relations that she ought to share common values with us,” Bush told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

TRADE DEAL SWEETENS PILL

Bush arrives in Russia’s old imperial capital from Germany on Friday. He has said he hopes for “candid” talks with Putin. But he says he will not lecture the Kremlin leader and he brings with him two deals to sweeten the pill for Russia.

If it is agreed in time, Bush and Putin will sign a trade agreement paving the way for Russia to join the World Trade Organisation. A deal on Russia and the United States sharing nuclear fuel and technology with third countries will also be on the table.

Russia, a huge oil and gas exporter, chose energy security as the formal centrepiece of the summit but diplomats say the final communique will contain little substance on this.

Consumers of Russian energy have been worrying about its reliability as a supplier since gas flows to several European Union states were briefly disrupted in January.

The EU is pushing Moscow to commit to the terms of an energy charter that would oblige it to open up its energy sector to foreign firms. Moscow has resisted.

For the summit, G8 countries have sidestepped a fight. Diplomats say the final communique will echo the principles of the charter, without holding Russia to specific commitments.

DOHA

Stalled talks over the Doha round of world trade talks are expected to come up at the summit. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said this weekend could be “one of the last opportunities to restart” the round.

WTO chief Pascal Lamy, who has said the Doha round is “in crisis”, will go to St Petersburg and will address a session on trade on Monday, a WTO spokesman said in Geneva.

Putin, a former Soviet spy, said Russia would not tolerate anyone using the democracy issue to interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs, though he said Russia was ready to listen to “well-intentioned criticism”.

Russia says it will not stop anyone staging legitimate protests during the summit. It has set aside a sports stadium for protesters to stage an alternative G8 forum.

But forum organisers said Russian police have been detaining activists en route at train stations and airports.

Six local members of radical parties were detained briefly on Thursday. Several more were due in court charged with staging protests without police permission. — Reuter