Putin Takes Center Stage at G-8

The G-8 Summit begins next weekend in St. Petersburg. While the leaders from the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany and Britain meet to discuss international security, energy, education, and infectious diseases, anti-globalization activists will stage protests and gather at social forums to discuss the adverse effects of the global economic order.

St. Petersburg won’t be Genoa. For the simple reason that the anti-globalist movement has seen better days. While many in the global South are still active in resisting the neo-liberal economics of supranational organizations like the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent declaration of the Global War on Terror had altered the agenda of many activists in the United States and Europe. The mass protests and violent police repression during the 2001 G-8 Genoa, Italy now seem like distant memories associated with another time and another world. Anti-globalization protests seem pass?. So late 1990s.

There is little indication that the activities scheduled in St. Petersburg will result in a sudden revitalization or nostalgia. Activists’ attendance looks to be small, mostly because the difficulties and costs of obtaining a visa to enter the country. Russian activists will be present, but the costs of getting to the former Tsarist capital will dilute an already small movement.

Another issue that concerns protesters is the wrath of the Petersburg authorities. How convenient that the Duma recently passed and Putin signed a new anti-terrorism law. The Duma is also considering changes to the anti-extremism law that will expand the definition of “extremist,” according to Kommersant, include “impeding the legal activities of federal authorities” together with “violence or threat to use it”, and “public slander of individuals acting for a public office of Russia or its constituent subject, connected to accusing this individual of capital offense and felony.”

Still events will be held, however modest they will be. Some activists are not discouraged and enter the protests with optimism. Information on the scheduled activities can be found here and here. However, the Russian authorities will be ready for whatever happens. They even bought a water canon. Even the skinheads are being targeted as St. Petersburg tries to dispel its image as a city of racial hated.

If the stakes are low for the anti-globalists, they are certainly high for Putin. Russia is back on the geopolitical scene as it exerts its energy hegemony over Europe, is asked by Israel to put pressure on Hamas, and positions itself as an indispensable negotiator in the Iran crisis. The real test is whether Putin can use the G-8 negotiations to get American approval for Russia’s admittance into the World Trade Organization. The U.S. remains the only country opposing Russia’s membership. As of Tuesday, it seems that Putin is attempting some brinkmanship. In a press conference on the subject, he made this warning: “If we for some reason do not succeed in reaching a final agreement we will relieve ourselves of the commitments on some agreements which we have not only taken but that we are fulfilling while not even being a member of the organization.” Translation: Without membership, Russia will renege on the WTO agreements it has already signed. And why the hell not? Why should Russia commit to WTO agreements without membership? After all, it signed them as a precondition to join the organization, a move than has yet to bare fruit.

The stick was followed by a few carrots. In an interview on Thursday, Putin heaped glowing words on George Bush, calling him a “friend” and a “decent person”. He also gave Bush greetings on his 60th birthday. Overall, Putin wanted to warm the cooling relations between Moscow and Washington and state and the two countries are “principal partners” in many global issues and crises. He even defended kissing that damn kid’s belly.

All of this makes you wonder, who is on stage here: the G-8 or Vladimir Putin? It seems that the summit has turned into a golden opportunity for Putin to put Russia, (and himself), at the center and reap the most public relations benefit. With North Korea showing some teeth and Iran thumbing its nose at the international consensus, perhaps the master of ceremonies can spin its geopolitical resurgence into gold. For Russia’s sake, hopefully that gold won’t turn out to be that of fools.