The G8 summit: public relations triumph and lost opportunities
The St. Petersburg summit was a tremendous public relatious triumph for the Kremlin, and for President Vladimir Putin personally. In the summit preparation process, however, Russia demonstrated in at least two ways that it isn’t yet ready to play by the rules accepted in other G8 countries.
The St. Petersburg summit was a tremendous public relatious triumph for the Kremlin, and for President Vladimir Putin personally. This was acknowledged, with some amazement, by even the most anti-Kremlin Western media. No one’s denying that Putin dominated the summit. The Daily Telegraph’s reporting, for example, is usually more than just anti-Putin – it’s anti-Russian. This time, however, the newspaper reported with undisguised surprise that Putin isn’t dull and bland at all – he’s a master of public politics: “No matter how Putin humiliated his fellow statesmen, he got away with everything!”
After that, Western journalists plunged into lengthy ruminations about why Putin had become the acknowledged star of the summit. Perhaps it was because some of his fellow G8 leaders are approaching the end of their political careers, while others are newcomers. Perhaps the sudden start of a war in the Middle East played a role here, forcing the G8 leaders to forget about the initial agenda.
Before the summit, many had expected that it would turn into a public whipping for the Kremlin, to punish it for its actions “against Russian democracy.” But nothing of the kind actually happened. The only real sting delivered to Putin came from Britain – and not even from Tony Blair, but from his wife, Cherie. She is known as one of Britain’s most highly-paid and aggressive lawyers. During the summit, Cherie Blair offered her services to some Russian non-governmental organizations. In particular, she is prepared to help with an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against Russia’s new law on non-governmental and non-profit organizations.
Still, the Putin administration managed to spin even this incident in its own favor. According to a Kremlin spokesman, the very fact that Cherie Blair was able to find some opposition activists is clear evidence that civil society does exist in Russia.
But all this is just public relations shuffling. Can the summit boast of any concrete political achievements that might justify the many millions spent on organizing it? This turns out to be a rather complicated philosophical question. In the 1970s, when the heads of state from the leading world powers first started meeting like this, they did discuss truly serious matters. Back then, Arab oil magnates were periodically grabbing the West by the throat with their oil embargo threats. So the leaders of the G6, subsequently the G7, used their summits to formulate a common response to the Arabs. After that, however, the summits of the world’s most exclusive club turned into ceremonial public relations measures. Based on these criteria, the St. Petersburg event cannot be considered a failure.
Yet this point of view isn’t entirely honest. Symbolism is extremely important in politics. In theory, the St. Petersburg had every chance of becoming a truly historic event. It was the first time that the heads of state from the leading world powers had held their meeting on Russian territory. Eight years from now, when (God willing) Russia hosts the G8 summit again, it won’t be the same. In short, Russia really has been the focus of the whole world’s attention over the past few days. This doesn’t happen often; in fact, it’s extremely rare. The Kremlin could have used this opportunity to make some truly important statements – about our vision of the world order, for example, and Russia’s place in that system. Instead, the summit was devoted to verbal cud-chewing about “energy security” and other issues which the general public finds hard to understand.
And here’s another important point. Russian opposition activists are wrong, of course, in claiming that our country isn’t fit to host a G8 summit. Domestic political battles are one thing, but the state’s international standing is quite another. In the summit preparation process, however, Russia demonstrated in at least two ways that it isn’t yet ready to play by the rules accepted in other G8 countries. Firstly, the St. Petersburg Airport was closed to ordinary citizens for several days; such a measure would be quite unthinkable in the West.
Secondly, some of the methods used to ensure security at the summit were improper. It’s a good thing, of course, that Russia’s summit was not accompanied by mass riots, as some G8 summits in the West have been. But the arrests of potential trouble-makers, with blatant violations of the law, were unworthy of a country that is called democratic.
Thus, the summit and its carnival-like atmosphere are over. Time to get back to the normal routine. From now on, the Kremlin won’t be able to restrict itself to achievements in the semi-virtual world of public relations. Something more tangible is needed now.
Time and place: July 2006, St. Petersburg (Russia)
Official agenda: energy security, infectious diseases, education
Results: The “unscheduled” war in the Middle East added a new topic to the summit agenda. Disagreements arose between the United States, France, and Russia about the approach to the summit’s statement on events in the Middle East. Russia refused to ratify the European Energy Charter, as European representatives had insisted; but Moscow was obliged to consent to partial deregulation of the energy sector (in particular, opening it up to foreign investors). The question of World Trade Organization membership for Russia remains resolved.