Geopolitics Is on Putin's Mind at G-8 Summit

Say what you want about his authoritarian leanings, you have to respect Russian President Vladimir Putin's political and public—diplomacy skills. He is using flattery and espousal of certain fashionable causes with little impact on his nation to build capital among the world's publicity—seeking advocacy groups as cover for his own backsliding on other issues of greater political import.

Case in point: last week's "Civil G8 2006 Forum for Nongovernmental Organizations," which brought together some 700 representatives of nongovernmental organizations in Moscow as a precursor to this weekend's St. Petersburg G—8 summit.  Admitted to the G—8 in 1997, Russia is serving as president of the informal body —— and host of the annual summit —— for the first time.

President Putin used the Civil G8 Forum to:

— more or less quiet the groups that created a ruckus outside last year's G—8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland;

— rehabilitate his image as a democratic statesman;

— indulge in some one—upsmanship vis—vis the West;

— blunt what he sees as Western geopolitical encroachment in the former Soviet states.

Not a bad couple of days' work.

The words 'nongovernmental organizations' (NGOs) are an umbrella term for advocacy groups, think tanks, you name it. Since winning the right to take part in UN General Assembly and Security Council deliberations a decade ago, NGOs have sought similar status in other international venues, such as the G—8. And they've taken to calling themselves 'civil society.' They see themselves as an advocate for ordinary citizens with governments that are purportedly indifferent to human rights, the environment, and other causes they espouse.

Advocacy groups predominate in the NGO community. Accordingly, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Catholic Relief, and other household names turned out in force last week to plead their causes, joined by delegates —— such as yours truly —— representing institutions less given to political advocacy. Roundly condemned in the West for stifling NGO activities, President Putin used the Civil G8 Forum to remake himself as a friend or even a champion of parts of their agenda. For example, he aligned himself with organizations that oppose the use of genetically modified organisms in foodstuffs. This endeared him to the Europeans in attendance.

President Putin deployed two diplomatic strategies at the forum. One, he opened G—8 deliberations to NGOs for the first time ever. The doors were barred to them two years ago at the U.S.—hosted Sea Island summit, and again last year at the U.K.—hosted summit in Gleneagles. At Gleneagles, accordingly, anti—poverty crusaders such as U—2's Bono carried their message directly to the media, painting the G—8 as a closed council of the rich and powerful, with little sympathy for the world's destitute. Putin's implicit message: Russia is more receptive to advice from civil society than are the G—8's Western members, established market democracies all.

Putin endorsed certain parts of the NGOs' agenda, making them his own. He downplayed his opposition to the more objectionable parts of their agenda —— notably democratic reform —— while embracing the less controversial parts. In short, he deftly created the impression of an open—minded statesman.

In the process Putin headed off some of the criticism of his apparent backsliding on Russian democracy that he's likely to encounter during the St. Petersburg summit. Vice President Dick Cheney recently decried Putin's actions, reproaching him for sending 'mixed signals' on individual liberty within Russia and for withholding energy resources to 'intimidate and blackmail' Russia's neighbors. His interventionism in the ex—Soviet states along Russia's periphery, which Moscow views as a sphere of vital interest, has also come under criticism. Sen. John McCain urged the Bush administration to boycott the St. Petersburg summit, while other voices in Congress have called for suspending Moscow's G—8 membership.

Putin bristles at such accusations. The Civil G8 Forum gave him a way to help defuse them.

What gave rise to the Putin government's crackdown on NGOs in the first place? Geopolitics.

Moscow believes the United States and Europe are using NGOs to project Western influence into the former Soviet dominions. This threatens Moscow's prerogatives in its 'near abroad.' Ukraine, for example, has made no secret of its desire for NATO membership, and it recently underwent an 'Orange Revolution' that replaced a Russian—backed presidential candidate with one more to Washington's liking. Moscow ascribed this upheaval in great part to democratic agitation on the part of Western—backed NGOs. Ukraine seems poised to break out of the Russian orbit, and, if it does gain entry to NATO, to bring the Atlantic Alliance to the borders of Russia.

To Russian officials' way of thinking, NGOs helped arouse democratic sentiments, advancing Western geopolitical aims at Russia's expense. And they fear Russia might be next.

This past spring, acting at the president's behest, Russia's Federal Assembly sought to head off democracy promotion by foreign—financed NGOs. Lawmakers enacted a law restricting the operations of NGOs on Russian soil. At last week's forum, President Putin pledged to relax enforcement of the law if the new paperwork requirements prove too onerous, but he also set himself adamantly "against having foreign governments finance political activity in our country." Thus NGOs will likely see their freedom to pursue their endeavors on Russian soil shrink.

At least two lessons emerge from this year's G—8 activities. First, geopolitics still matters —— even in innocuous—seeming forums such as the G—8. Governments predisposed to worry about Western machinations may view grassroots operations by Amnesty or other organizations —— the kind of activity established democracies regard as a matter of course —— as a grave threat to the national interest. What to Americans or Europeans looks like an agenda to empower ordinary Russians looks to Moscow like an effort to undermine Putin's regime.

Thus the G—8 is an arena for international competition as well as a forum for addressing matters of common concern. Now as ever, governments set their realpolitik interests —— especially self—preservation —— above efforts launched by international bodies, however noble these efforts appear to their backers.
And second, individual leadership still counts in diplomatic affairs. If Vladimir Putin can transform himself in the public mind from despot into activist in the space of a couple of days, he's a leader to be reckoned with. The G—8 delegates should bear this in mind as they assemble this weekend in St. Petersburg.

James Holmes is a senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security.

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