The G8 leaders and their private meetings

Chairing the G8 still brings more responsibilities than honors, including those that stem from choosing key issues for discussion. Energy security, expected to present the host country to its greatest advantage, is also an issue with at least two hidden problems for Russia.

“The main feature of the upcoming G8 summit is the fact that Russia is chairing it.” While it might not be common opinion, that’s what we were told by an aide to one of the European G8 leaders. The right to host a summit signifies that Russia’s membership of the most influential international club is real, not just a formality. We have attempted to work out whether this will change anything for Russia or the G8 itself.

Boris Yeltsin, thanks to whom the G7 formally became the G8 in 1997, only spent a few hours in the company of other leaders at summits; a great many of the their discussions still excluded Russia. In effect, the G7 continued to exist – there were always some issues the seven leaders preferred to discuss on their own. It’s only this year that the G7 is truly “dying”: the finance ministers have held a full-format meeting that included Russia (although many still regard this as purely decorative), the summit will take place in St. Petersburg, and President Vladimir Putin takes on the “leader of leaders” title for one year.

From six to eight

It all began when some of the strongest world leaders wished to talk privately amongst themselves. In the early 1970s, the finance ministers of France and West Germany, Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, decided that it would be worthwhile to discuss some issues with their counterparts from the economically developed nations. In November 1975, the heads of state and heads of government from the United States, Britain, West Germany, Italy, and Japan came to France at the invitation of President Giscard d’Estaing and gathered at the Chateau de Rambouillet near Paris, where the historic words of the November 17 Declaration were first heard: “We came together because of shared beliefs and shared responsibilities… The growth and stability of our economies will help the entire industrial world and developing countries to prosper.”

The formation of the G7 was a response to the economic crisis of the early 1970s, and many experts consider it a successful response. The “oil shock” became only a memory; the confrontation between France and the United States over the dictatorship of the dollar receded into the past. At the Venice summit in 1980, the G7 declared its new priorities: restraining inflation, fighting unemployment, solving the problem of Third World debt.

The dangers of energy security

Chairing the G8 still brings more responsibilities than honors, including those that stem from choosing key issues for discussion. Energy security, expected to present the host country to its greatest advantage, is also an issue with at least two hidden problems for Russia.

The first problem is the European Energy Charter. Since the gas conflict with Ukraine, Russia has faced increasingly active demands to ratify the Charter. The Charter’s basic principle is that energy supplies can only be considered secure if they are not dependent on a single supplier. This applies to both buyers (EU countries are obliged to restrict purchases from any one source) and sellers – different companies should have equal access to production and transport. For domestic reasons, Russia is not prepared to make such commitments; in other words, from the standpoint of Charter lobbyists, Russia cannot be considered energy-secure. And this kind of rhetoric is sure to grow.

The second problem is far less noticeable as yet: many G8 countries are increasingly searching for cheaper and more environmentally-friendly energy sources than petroleum. So far, Russia doesn’t have much to say on this point (by no means all countries take a positive view of nuclear energy). And there’s another matter, partly image-related: Western experts are outraged by the fact that per capita energy consumption in Russia is four times higher than in Europe. For many G8 members, energy efficiency and the environment have long been essential issues, without which they simply cannot discuss energy security.

The club of the strongest

The G7 has always been a club, not just an international organization. All preparations are headed and coordinated by “sherpas” who usually hold quarterly meetings. Russia’s sherpa is presidential aide Igor Shuvalov. The G8 establishes working groups, expert groups, and target groups in various areas. Currently active ones include the High-Level Group on WMD Non-Proliferation, the Rome-Lyon Group for Fighting Terrorism and Organized Crime, the Counter-Terrorism Action Group, the Group of Personal Envoys for Contacts with African Leaders… G8 bodies organize an average of 60-80 international events each year.

In principle, the results of G8 summit are not legally binding for any country; it’s more a matter of setting a general direction. As a rule, however, decisions made at summits are implemented with hardly any objections – whether it’s writing off debts for African countries or funding HIV vaccine research. Some G8 decisions require member countries to contribute political resources rather than money: such as the initiative to tighten control over portable surface-to-air missile launchers, which required Moscow to hold lengthy and sometimes heated negotiations with its closest neighbors.

Although Russia is officially a full-fledged G8 member, it sometimes becomes a recipient of funding rather than a donor. For example, the Kananaskis summit in 2002 established the Global Partnership Against Proliferation of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. This has resulted in the more developed nations funding Russia’s programs aimed at destroying chemical weapons and dismantling nuclear submarines.

"We’d feel like we were on stage"

The G8 has made several attempts to return to its roots of 30 years ago and hold a quiet meeting where the leaders can talk comfortably amongst themselves. This was why Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretian chose to host a summit in remote Kananaskis; British Prime Minister Tony Blair also had this in mind when he proposed a summit at secluded Gleneagles, Scotland. But real privacy can no longer be achieved; the leaders have far too many public duties. And Russia’s turn at chairing the G8 will disrupt the fragile tradition of not holding summits in major cities.

The G8 leaders still want to shut out the outside world as much as possible. Not because of anti-globalization activists; on the whole, they don’t cause too many problems for the G8 leaders themselves. The basic reason involves the drawbacks of big-time politics and publicity. “It’s impossible to get any work done if even one television camera is present – we’d feel like we were on stage,” said Putin after the Gleneagles summit, explaining the G8 leaders’ need for privacy.

This is why most of the leaders’ meetings take place behind closed doors. Even here, however, there are different kinds of meetings. Some have a clear agenda (although the leaders are not obliged to follow it); as a rule, such meetings are also attended by “guests,” with invitations depending on the topic under discussion. But the main events take place behind the scenes, at unofficial lunches and dinners. At these events G8 leaders are not constrained by agendas, the presence of journalists, or any need to announce the results of talks; the only thing that’s subject to regulation is the menu.