Tensions over Russia Set Tone at G-8 Meeting; Moscow's Foreign Policy, Energy Role Cited
Byline: Michael Mainville, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
MOSCOW - A meeting of the Group of Eight finance ministers beginning today threatens to be overshadowed by tensions over President Vladimir Putin's record on democracy and Russia's reliability as an energy supplier.
The two-day session, attended by Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, is the first important meeting to be hosted by Russia in its role as this year's president of the powerful G-8 major industrial nations.
Energy security, education, efforts to fight infectious diseases and debt relief for poor countries are all on the agenda. But the tone has been set by Washington's public questioning of Russia's fitness to lead the group and Moscow's prickly response.
Despite its relatively small economy - about the size of Portugal's - Russia was added to the G-7 club of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States in 1998.
But the West's relationship with Russia has become strained since Mr. Putin moved in recent years to concentrate more power in the Kremlin. And despite some cooperation on containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, Mr. Putin's foreign policy has often been at odds with the West, especially with Russian support for autocratic regimes in Belarus and Uzbekistan.
On Sunday, Sen. John McCain called on G-8 leaders to boycott the group's July summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, saying the country "is neither a democracy nor one of the world's leading economies." He accused the Kremlin of being "in pursuit of autocracy at home and abroad."
Concerns about Russia's commitment to G-8 principles peaked after gas supplies to Ukraine were cut off on Jan. 1 in a price dispute between Moscow and a former ally that has taken a pro-Western stance. The move disrupted gas supplies to Europe, which buys about half its natural gas from Russia.
Moscow insisted it was simply asking Ukraine to pay fair market prices. But senior U.S. officials told The Washington Times this week they believe Russia is using its control of Soviet-era pipelines to hold down purchase prices in Central Asia while skimming huge profits through corrupt middlemen. …