Why Is Russia Still in the G-8?
21 June 2013
Fifteen years ago, the United Kingdom hosted the first official summit of the “Group of Eight.” The 1998 meeting in Birmingham marked the first time that Russia participated as a full member in the club of the world’s leading industrialized democracies—a unique international organization based not only on its members’ geopolitical influence, but also on their adherence to the values of political and economic freedom. Despite the many social problems at the time, Russia in 1998 clearly met the criteria for G-8 membership: It had free competitive elections, a robust independent media—including national television—and a genuine pluralistic Parliament.
This week, as the G-8 leaders once again gathered in the United Kingdom, the “odd man out” was evident to everyone. Russia today is unrecognizable from the country admitted to the democratic club 15 years ago. Its political landscape today includes not only election fraud, media censorship, and an authoritarian “vertical of power,” but also dozens of political prisoners, politically motivated show trials, and a 1930s-style, state-driven paranoia about “foreign agents,” as the Putin regime now labels independent NGOs. Its foreign policy, under Putin’s direction, is founded on virulent anti-Americanism and the protection of like-minded dictators across the world—including in Syria, which was the principal focus of discussion at the summit. The very purpose of the G-8 as a values-based organization that can speak with one voice on pressing international issues has been dissolved.
“The G-8 is still known as the group of leading industrialized democracies, which sounds increasingly grotesque given the situation in Russia,” Boris Nemtsov, deputy prime minister of Russia at the time of G-8 accession and now a leading figure in the pro-democracy opposition, told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. “It would be more appropriate to refer to the group as ‘G-7 plus Putin.’”
It appears that his advice was heeded. “I don’t think we should fool ourselves,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared at the summit. “This is G-7 plus one.” The same line—that the G-8 has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist—reverberated in major Western newspapers. The admission of this fact appears to be spreading—though not yet, it seems, to the White House. In his bilateral meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the summit, US President Barack Obama failed to mention anything related to democracy or human rights abuses in Russia.
There is some irony in the fact that, while US legislators have long called for the Kremlin’s suspension from the G-8 over the lack of democracy in Russia, it was Vladimir Putin himself who finally ended the pretense. G-8 meetings may continue as a formal routine, but in reality the group has reverted to the original G-7. This will continue until the day when Russia once again has a freely elected government and takes back its rightful place among the world’s democracies.