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Published: Sunday, 7/23/2006

G8 leaders missed opportunities at summit

Nature abhors a vacuum.

So do political forums, it turns out.

At the end of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week, Cherie Blair, a human rights lawyer and the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, offered legal help to Russian human rights and aide groups that are suffering a crackdown by President Vladimir Putin's increasingly autocratic regime.

The nongovernmental groups were looking more to world leaders such as President Bush and Prime Minister Blair for protection, but they failed to deliver.

So Ms. Blair rose to the challenge.

Russian liberals were grateful. So should be the heads of the formerly G7 (as in G8 minus Russia) member-states.

Armed with a recent law, the Russian government has been cracking down on nongovernmental organizations, domestic and foreign, threatening to close any of them if it deems them a threat to Russia's "sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, unity, cultural heritage, or national interests."

After six years of Mr. Putin's rule, which had done away with the country's federalism, independent parliament, independent television, and largely with the independent press, NGOs are the only viable independent political forces in Russia still capable of fighting the country's backslide to autocracy.

G8 summits were designed as meetings of the heads of the largest democracies. To put no pressure on Mr. Putin to reverse his quest for autocracy would have been a total loss of face.

Ms. Blair picked up the ball dropped by Mr. Bush as the informal leader of the summit. Its formal leader was Mr. Putin because Russia impossibly holds the rotating G8 presidency this year.

Not only did Mr. Bush fail to put Russia's backsliding on democracy on the summit's agenda, he inadvertently played into Mr. Putin's hands when he tried to hint at lack of democracy in Russia.

That's when he fell victim to the sarcasm of Mr. Putin, who pointed out that Russia did not want the kind of democracy Iraq has now.

The only consolation was that Mr. Putin also failed to deliver on the expectations his loyalists had of him as the host of the summit.

They widely expected him to use the forum as a podium to announce Russia's return to the world arena as a superpower that has turned its economic clout as a major energy exporter into political leverage. Given the poor performance of his fellow G8 leaders, Mr. Putin would have delivered had he not been upstaged by the armed conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

The conflict hijacked the summit agenda, forcing the G8 leaders to struggle over differences in their approaches toward the Middle East crisis. The resulting toothless communique only underscored the impotency of the G8 with Russia as a member.

Moreover, an organizational gaffe, for which Russia is formally responsible as the host of the summit, made this fact painfully obvious to the world.

It happened when Mr. Bush, who was unaware that a nearby microphone was picking up his every word, told Mr. Blair that he felt like telling U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to get on the phone with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is widely considered to have leverage with Hezbollah, and "make something happen."

Simply put, the summit faltered. But had it not been for Ms. Blair, it would have been a total dud.

Still, the only way for the G8 to rid itself of its stigma is to go back to being G7 by ridding itself of Russia.

Russia's economy is still far too small to qualify it as a G8 member, so expelling Russia does not have to involve the human rights issue Mr. Bush is so reluctant to press with Mr. Putin.



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