Skip St. Petersburg, Mr. Bush

Close your eyes and say it out loud: “G-8.” Let the two syllables run across your tongue again: “gee-eight.” What images drift into your brain?

If you are like most Americans, I suspect that this simple psychological experiment will produce something like, “stuffy statesmen, boring meeting, prepackaged conclusions.” Or maybe, “screaming protesters, riot police, prepackaged slogans.” Or even, “turn the page and read something else.”

Maybe it isn’t surprising. After all, the Group of Eight, once known as the Group of Seven, started life as a private meeting between the leaders of the world’s largest industrial democracies. Off the record, they discussed the economic and political problems of the day. The only “message” produced was a statement to the effect that inflation was bad and oil prices were high.

Over the years, the G-8 evolved. Even as it came to mean less and less to Americans, it meant more and more to others. The Japanese, seeing the G-8 as a substitute for the U.N. Security Council they’ll never join, spent lavishly, racking up a $750 million bill last time they hosted. The Europeans, leaping on the chance to set the international agenda, chose elaborate, crowd-pleasing “themes” to do with aid or technology. African, Latin American and Middle Eastern leaders showed up to bask in the reflected limelight. The Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, was allowed first to attend meetings and then to join, on the muddled grounds that making him a member, despite his country’s lack of qualifications, would magically turn Russia into one of the world’s largest democracies, too. It did not.

But now, having acquired ludicrous levels of significance and symbolism, the institution faces a genuine crisis. In July, the organization is going to meet for the first time under Russian leadership, in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. And for the first time, a G-8 summit could produce, along with the bland communique, a political backlash harmful to all.

For by going to St. Petersburg, President Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Jacques Chirac, and the leaders of Italy, Germany, Canada and Japan will in effect place their stamp of approval on the removal of political rights, the harassment of independent groups, the renationalization of energy and the censorship of media that Putin has imposed on his country since he took over from Yeltsin six years ago. They will also give their blessing to Putin’s use of gas pipelines to threaten Ukraine, and to his ambiguous role in Iranian nuclear and Middle East peace negotiations. And after Bush goes home, the denizens of the Kremlin — along with Venezuelans, Iranians, Arab leaders and others around the world — will sit back, laugh and agree that the leaders of the so-called West merely pay lip service to the ideals of freedom and democracy; they don’t really believe in them. If you have enough oil, they’ll let you into their clubs anyway. The long-term result: The American president’s ability to speak credibly about democracy and political freedom will be irreparably damaged.

Perhaps you think it ridiculous to sound so apocalyptic about a meeting that most Americans find too boring to read about. But don’t listen to me, listen to Andrei Illarionov, an economic adviser to Putin before he resigned last year in disgust. Illarionov says that Putin invariably returns from G-8 meetings feeling strengthened and empowered in his political course — and it is true that Putin’s opponents have been arrested or put on trial in a summit’s wake. He also says the G-8 is taken deadly seriously in Russia, and shrugs when told that Americans don’t much care one way or the other. “What is important is not how you, in the U.S., view the G-8. You have to think how your participation will be viewed and used in the world.” Nor does it matter that U.S. leaders have always met with Russian dictators, since, to the Russians and to others, this is much different from a bilateral meeting: “There is no case in previous history when you endorsed such policies at such a level, at the G-8 level.”

I should explain that Illarionov is in Washington this week for a conference. I should also add that he says he’s been surprised by how many people, both here and in Russia, have asked whether he’s really returning to Moscow afterward — “will you dare go back” being a question that no one even considered asking five years ago. It is tragic but true: Russia has once again become a place where blunt-speaking economists have to watch their backs.

There is still time: President Bush has four months to decide whether he wants to endorse this new Russia, four months to decide whether he wants to bestow on Putin the full approval of the West’s most prestigious club, four months to decide whether he will destroy what remains of his credibility as a promoter of democracy and human rights. He can mitigate the damage — he can stop in Vilnius or Kiev on the way, he can declare his faith in freedom to his Russian hosts — but neither the Kremlin, nor the other opponents of democracy around the world, will care. All they will remember is that he was there.

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