The G-8, the exclusive club of the world's leading powers, seems to be the last fortress of international political institutions, not having, as of yet, undergone any test resulting from the situation surrounding Iraq . This test is scheduled for next month, in the French resort city of Evian , where the leaders of the United States , Canada , Great Britain , Germany , France , Italy , Japan and Russia will sit down together for the first time since the Iraqi ordeal began. Frankly, today when the split between the anti-Iraqi and anti-war coalitions is so deep and after the leaders of the mentioned counties have already said so many bitter and angry words addressed to each other, it is even difficult to imagine all of them sitting calmly at the same table. This is especially true if President Bush adopts a straightforward approach ("to punish France , to ignore Germany and to forgive Russia "), as has been reported.
Under such circumstances, it is clear that no one can expect any breakthrough decisions will be adopted at the G-8 summit in France . It will be an extremely difficult meeting, and the summit's agenda will not facilitate the task of the participants. For the first time in the last ten years, the G-8 leaders will not discuss such global matters as debt reconstruction of the poorest countries or the global fight against AIDS, but, instead, their own acute economic problems, and -first of all - problems of their own economic growth. This discussion promises to be the most difficult one--not only because of poor economic conditions in the leading countries but also because of one simple fact: none of the participants have any real experience in coping with such problems nor are they ready to suggest any possible collective action in this respect.
Another issue on the summit's agenda - discussion of global security issues and the struggle against international terrorism - is expected to be even more confrontational. Here the situation could really get out of control - only Jean Chretien did not actively participate in either one of the coalitions. It will require tremendous self-control of all the participants not to turn the summit into a scandal. Apparently, here could be just one question the participants might discuss more or less "constructively", and this question is the repayment or restructuring of the Iraqi debt. But even this quite "innocent" issue will make one of the participants - Russia - quite unhappy. Moscow has been reluctant to consider any solution outside of the framework of the Paris Club. Moreover, some well-informed sources in Russia report that, at present, the Kremlin is actively lobbying Germany and France for support of its position, arguing that, under the current financial situation in the world, "no one can afford simply forgiving" the Iraqi debt and claiming that Moscow will "never agree on any emergency measures" in this particular respect.
Actually, President Putin must feel very uneasy before the summit. In terms of the economic discussions, Russia is the most vulnerable participant at the meeting. It is naïve even to believe that anyone would seriously take into consideration as a major force in the global economy a country whose national economy is much smaller than even one component of the United States , the state of California . Russia , in fact, has two major problems to cope with at Evian. First, Putin is seriously concerned with the fact that Russia 's acceptance into the World Trade Organization is currently stalled - mainly because Washington has withdrawn its once-solid support after Moscow 's openly anti-American stance on the Iraqi issue. Putin's second contribution to the agenda is a discussion of the out of control problem of drug trafficking emanating from Afghanistan , with its attendant threat to Russian security. But, as everyone understands, both problems are of minor importance for the rest of the participants.
But the real concern of the Russian president is that if the discussion is concentrated on economic matters, it will clearly demonstrate to the rest of the world that Russia has practically nothing to offer or contribute at the meetings of the G-8. Its membership in this club was given primarily through Washington 's efforts to reward Russia 's "good behavior" in the post-Cold War environment. Now, it is not so clear, after what happened in the relations between the two countries, whether "friend George" wants to tolerate his unloyal buddy in the same exquisite club. Might not it be time to turn the G-8 back into the G-7? Or an even worse scenario--perhaps the G-7 states will invite Putin's Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao (who, by the way, already received an invitation to participate in the summit from its host - French President Chiraq) to replace the Russian president. Certainly, not only on economic grounds, but even on military or political grounds, China has much more reason to be a member than Russia . So far, the notion that America is prepared to "forgive" Russia remains only a rumor.
However, what is really amazing is how Russia continues to torpedo normalizing relations with Washington in the aftermath of the Iraq war. The latest example of such a "wise" policy was the outcome of the "working consultations" between President Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Putin reiterated the well-known Russian stance that the United Nations had to play the leading role in post-war Iraq . He re-emphasized that Russia would prevent any early lifting of the UN sanctions against Baghdad and practically ignored his British colleague's desperate calls for unity and reconciliation in the global anti-terrorist coalition. As one senior Russian diplomat privately observed, "It is absolutely unclear why these fellows decided to see each other - to gain nothing and just to demonstrate how far apart their positions are." I disagree. It is clear why Putin decided to see Blair. All the harsh words Putin said to Blair were in reality addressed to George Bush, and it means that the Kremlin wanted to stake its position before the President arrives in St. Petersburg . After that, it looks highly unlikely that the American president would want once again "to look deep into the eyes and see the soul" of his Russian counterpart.
There is no doubt that the format of the club, whether as the G-7 or G-8, will survive into the 21st century. However, it is absolutely unclear whether Russia will remain one of its members following the meeting in Evian.
Pavel Ivanov is a consultant and a contributor to the Asia Times (www.atimes.com).