How Russia Got Into the Democratic Club

By Stephen Boykewich
The Moscow Times

Friday, July 14, 2006. Page 1.

ST. PETERSBURG — When an ailing, barely reelected President Boris Yeltsin was struggling to contain Russian fury in 1997 over NATO expansion into former Soviet states, U.S. President Bill Clinton had a solution: Let Russia into the Group of Seven.

“It’s real simple. As we push Ol’ Boris to do the right but hard thing on NATO, I want him to feel the warm, beckoning glow of doors that are opening to other institutions where he’s welcome,” Clinton told his aides in 1997, according to a memoir by Strobe Talbott, then the U.S. president’s top Russia aide.

It turned out to be far from simple.

Russia’s presidency of the club of rich democracies this year has been troubled from the start, generating something closer to a firestorm than a warm, beckoning glow.

And as President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush hold pre-summit talks here Friday — before the culminating Group of Eight summit opens Saturday — U.S.-Russian relations are at what analysts call their lowest point since the Soviet collapse.

The irony is that a membership meant to cement Russia into the West a decade ago has only highlighted the distance between the two — and at times appears to have pushed them further apart.

By admitting an underdeveloped, undemocratic country into a club of rich democracies, the West committed what former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov called its “original sin.”

“Russia got membership in the G8 as an advance, in the expectation that it would develop and become more democratic,” said Nemtsov, who served under Yeltsin from 1997 to 1998.

“It wasn’t a mistake, it was an advance,” Nemtsov said by telephone. “But Russia hasn’t paid it back.”

The country has made huge economic strides under Putin, thanks in large part to a 50 percent increase in oil exports amid prices that have soared to more than $70 per barrel. Russian oil export revenue has grown from $40 billion in 1999 to a projected $160 billion in 2006, while GDP has grown from $196 billion to a projected $980 billion in the same period, according to Alfa Bank, the country’s largest commercial bank.

But the Kremlin’s efforts to silence political opposition and restrict media freedom have made a mockery of values supposedly shared by all G8 members — values affirmed by Putin in previous G8 communiques, Nemtsov said.

“There need to be rules. Otherwise, it’s not a club, it’s a mixer,” Nemtsov said. “They might as well go to a discotheque and have a dialogue there. They can decide they all share a common orientation because they all like women.”

Culpability for the so-called original sin lay mainly with Clinton, who persuaded other G7 members to go out on a limb, several former Clinton administration officials said.

“The other members of the G8 had their doubts about taking Russia into the club in the ’90s, but they thought it was a good long-term gamble,” said Stephen Sestanovich, the top U.S. State Department official on the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001. “For the most part, although their doubts are greater now, they still support the gamble.”

At the same time, Russia’s G8 presidency has raised new questions about the club’s purpose, Sestanovich said.

“People doubted the value of the G8 long before President Putin came along. Russia’s chairmanship has intensified these doubts, because it seems a little too far outside the mainstream,” he said. “It’s a reminder that when you add a country to an international club, you ought to find out whether that new member shares the purposes of the club.”

Russia Eats Its Spinach

The first blow to Russia’s G8 presidency came on the first day of the year, when Gazprom cut gas supplies to Ukraine during a price dispute. Resulting supply shortfalls in Europe sparked months of fears, demands and veiled threats between Russia and the EU on precisely the theme Putin chose to top his G8 agenda.

“In the area where Putin wanted to make his big splash — in energy security — the story is not a very rosy one,” said Dmitry Trenin, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The Kremlin is clearly unwilling to trade away what it sees as vital interests — especially Gazprom’s natural gas export monopoly to lucrative European markets — in exchange for sunnier photo-ops at the summit.

The State Duma voted last week to make Gazprom the country’s sole legal exporter of natural gas, a sharp rebuttal to European calls for liberalized pipeline access.

Trenin said ongoing Russia-EU conflicts had scuttled hopes for a major breakthrough in the bilateral energy relationship this weekend.

“At the moment, I’m rather pessimistic” about anything more than a vague statement of shared principles, he said.

U.S.-Russian relations have also chilled as the Kremlin has signaled an end to the kind of bargains that won it G8 membership in the first place.

“Yeltsin was a enthusiast for clubs of all kinds,” leading him to sacrifice Russian interests for “half-symbolic gestures” such as G8 membership, said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst.

“In Russia, there is a sense that we agreed to every possible step the Americans asked us to take: the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the end of the Warsaw Pact, the withdrawal from East Europe and the removal of military bases in Cuba and Vietnam,” Nikonov said.

“We have given American corporations every chance to do business in Russia, every chance to enter into our energy sector,” he said. “For that, Russia hasn’t received a thing.”

Many analysts agreed that G8 membership had been poor compensation for the expansion of NATO into Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, which Russia bitterly opposed and took as a grave geopolitical threat.

“If a truly grand bargain had been offered to Russia in connection with NATO enlargement, it would have included not membership in an organization that is of doubtful importance; it would have meant very concrete concessions to Russian interests,” said Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

This was unlikely to happen during the 1990s, when the the general U.S. conception of bilateral relations “was making Russia eat its spinach,” Nikonov said.

Stephen Cohen, head of the Russian Studies program at New York University, said such a characterization was confirmed by a three-hour conversation he had with Clinton after the U.S. president left office.

“The Bill-Boris friendship was a fiction, a fraud, a manipulation of a boozy Yeltsin,” Cohen said by telephone. “We in the U.S. got used to the Yeltsin model of submissiveness to the U.S.

“American policy has essentially been a continuation of the Cold War. We treated them as a defeated nation, encircled them, took all we could,” Cohen said — detailing precisely the approach that a top Kremlin aide recently said Russia could not tolerate.

“If people think they have defeated us, then what do you feel toward a defeated enemy? Either disdain or remorse,” Vladislav Surkov, Kremlin deputy chief of staff and top political strategist, told foreign reporters this month. “We do not want to be treated like that. We do not think we are a defeated nation; we think that we decided our own future.”

Even one of the original architects of the plan to open G7 membership to Russia, privatization tsar Anatoly Chubais, said he still thought NATO expansion was a “grave mistake.”

“I was always categorically against NATO expansion,” he said by telephone, recalling he had argued with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger over the move east at a session of the Bilderburger club, a secretive group for the global elite. “But when it became clear that the decision had already been made, we decided to minimize the impact for Russia and for the world.”

Inviting Russia to join the G7, as well as the World Trade Organization, was one way of doing that, he said.

Even though tensions have worsened between Moscow and the West, Russia’s membership in the G8 is “absolutely correct for Russia and for the world,” he said.

Whither the G8?

With both EU and U.S. relations strained as the G8 summit opens, the Kremlin has been in the odd position of downplaying the importance of a club that it had touted at the start of the year.

“We don’t hope to get any political dividends other than those that our partners will also get” from the G8 presidency, Kremlin foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko told foreign journalists last week. “The G8 is not a Russian thing. It is a collective effort.”

Prikhodko was echoed by Nikonov, who insisted Russia had no special hopes for the weekend’s summit. “What kind of political dividends did Britain get from hosting the summit last year?” Nikonov said. “Like any other country, Russia doesn’t expect any special dividends. On the contrary — hosting the summit comes with significant costs.”

Nemtsov called such talk “drivel.”

“This is the first time in history Russia is formally presiding over a summit of these countries. Of course it’s a life-or-death thing,” he said. “When Putin retires, he’ll be talking about what a historic moment the summit was for Russia.”

While some Russia critics may be talking about booting Russia from the group for years to come, G8 leaders are more likely to be talking about whom to bring in next to save the group from irrelevance, said Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy. “The whole issue of expelling Russia in circumstances where the G8 is in a certain semi-crisis itself looks relatively strange,” he said. “The G8 needs to expand in order to maintain relevance,” embracing China, India and possibly Brazil, he said.

With G8 economies accounting for 45 percent of world GDP — as opposed to a previous high of more than 60 percent — “the G8 is not reflective of the on-the-ground reality in terms of the shift of power from West to East,” said Melkulangara Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat in the Soviet Union, by telephone from New Delhi.

“The rise of China in particular is completely overlooked in the current structure. It is invited on the sidelines, but there is definitely a need to recast the whole process,” Bhadrakumar said.

Still, Russia’s experience might convince China to go its own way. “China knows very well that if it were to be invited into the club, it would come with endless conversations about the lack of democracy,” Nikonov said. “China in my opinion will have no interest in that.”

Staff Writer Catherine Belton contributed to this report from Moscow.