G-8 Summit Strained by Middle East Fears

As leaders of the world's industrial powers gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the G-8 summit, the focus was on tensions in the Middle East. Meanwhile, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin remained at odds.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Leaders from the world's leading industrialized nations are gathering for the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting the meeting and has a number of issues he wants to discuss. But his agenda may be overshadowed by the growing crisis in the Middle East.

Joining us now to discuss what's happening ahead of the summit is NPR's Gregory Feifer, who's in St. Petersburg.

Hello there, Gregory.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: The summit doesn't officially start until tomorrow, but I imagine G-8 leaders are talking about the situation in the Middle East today.

FEIFER: That's right. President Bush met Putin for talks today. At a news conference following the meeting, Mr. Bush placed the blame for the Middle East conflict fully on the Islamist militant group Hezbollah. He said the best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms and stop attacking. But other G-8 members have condemned Israel attacks, including Russia. Putin called today for a balanced approach to the use of force.

Now, this split threatens to isolate the U.S. at the summit, where Putin said the escalating crisis would be discussed. It's not exactly clear what the G-8 would be able to do in terms of concrete action, however, especially since the United States has the most influence on Israel.

ELLIOTT: Other than the Middle East, what items are on the agenda for the G-8 nations for this meeting?

FEIFER: Well, Mr. Bush and Putin today discussed a number of them. They include Iran and North Korea. On Iran, Mr. Bush said work was going ahead on a U.N. Security Council resolution over Tehran's nuclear program. They also discussed failed talks between Moscow and Washington on a trade deal that would enable Moscow to join the World Trade Organization. Those talks, as I said, failed, which was a blow to the Kremlin. Mr. Bush said that both sides, however, had reached agreements on nuclear energy developments, counter-terrorism, and nuclear nonproliferation.

But the main issue between Washington and Moscow, this is apart from the G-8 Summit, is Russia's turn away from democracy. And Mr. Bush said that Putin doesn't want anyone to tell him how to run his country. But he said Iraq was a model for democracy and free press. Now, Putin jumped on that one, saying we would certainly not want to have the same kind of democracy as in Iraq, which seemed to embarrass Mr. Bush, who said, just wait.

ELLIOTT: Now, this is the first time Russia has hosted a G-8 meeting, and there were plans to sort of use the summit to showcase its recovery from a 1998 economic collapse. Will the situation in the Middle East detract from that at all, as Putin tries to impress the world?

FEIFER: I don't think so. Russia is the number two exporter of oil in the world and has the biggest reserves of natural gas. As you see, Moscow had wanted to have energy security at the top of the agenda, to draw attention to Russia's growing influence in the world. Energy security is a double-edged sword for Russia, I believe. The West accuses Russia of using energy as a political tool to influence other countries.

I think the Middle East crisis not only draw the focus away from criticism of Russia, but also gives Putin a chance to show himself sparring over the issue on a stage with Mr. Bush. It shows Moscow as a major player at the table.

ELLIOTT: Gregory Feifer in St. Petersburg, thank you for the update.

FEIFER: You're welcome.

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Mideast Violence Divides Russia, U.S. at G-8

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes President Bush to an informal dinner i

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes President Bush to an informal dinner for G-8 leaders and their spouses. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes President Bush to an informal dinner

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes President Bush to an informal dinner for G-8 leaders and their spouses.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

(ST. PETERSBURG, Russia) — The United States and Russia struggled to hide deepening differences on Saturday ahead of a major international summit overshadowed by the deepening Middle East crisis.

President George Bush met Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks on the sidelines of a summit in St. Petersburg of the group of eight leading industrial countries. Speaking at a joint news conference, Mr. Bush blamed the Islamic militant group Hezbollah for provoking Israel's attacks on southern Lebanon. "The best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms," Mr. Bush said. He called on Syria to exert influence on Hezbollah to stop its attacks.

But Putin, who has condemned Israel's offensive, today said "the use of force should be balanced." He said the G-8 leaders would discuss the issue during the summit and promised to find common ground, although it's unclear what the G-8 can do to help stop the escalating violence.

Other G-8 members' positions over the Middle East crisis are closer to Russia's, threatening to isolate Washington during the summit.

Mr. Bush and Putin also discussed a range of other issues, including North Korea and Iran. Mr. Bush said work would continue to draft a United Nations Security Council resolution over Tehran's nuclear program. Putin said Moscow and Washington had reached agreements on the development of nuclear energy, counter-terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation.

Mr. Bush appeared relaxed during the news conference, saying relations between Washington and Moscow were "strong and necessary." But he traded sometimes barbed jokes with his Russian counterpart, underscoring their growing differences on a number of issues.

U.S. negotiators failed to approve a trade deal with Moscow that would enable it to join the World Trade Organization. The news is a big blow for the Kremlin, which had hoped for an agreement during the summit. Mr. Bush defended Washington's decision, saying "We're tough negotiators." Putin said talks would continue.

The two leaders also skirted western concern about Moscow's turn away from democracy. On Friday, Mr. Bush met with human rights and youth groups to discuss worries about developments in Russia.

Tatyana Lokshina of the Demos human rights group attended the meeting, and she showed Mr. Bush photographs of children killed in Moscow's war in Chechnya. She said Mr. Bush said he shared concern about the war and other issues and would convey them to Putin.

But he also said Putin was his friend whom he would not criticize publicly. Today, Mr. Bush said Putin "doesn't want anyone to tell him how to run his country." But he added, "I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq where there's a free press and free religion."

Putin jumped on the comment, dryly saying, "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly." Over laughter from reporters, an embarrassed-looking Mr. Bush shot back, "Just wait."

Other G-8 leaders arrived in St. Petersburg later in the day to attend an informal dinner ahead of the summit's start tomorrow.

The Kremlin had wanted energy security to top the meeting's agenda to draw attention to Russia's growing status in the world as a major energy supplier. Officials have expressed concern the Middle East crisis may overshadow the topic. But Putin's performance today did much to display Russia's new confidence on the international stage.

Outside the G-8 venue, located on an island near St. Petersburg, protesters complained of harassment and arrests by police. About 300 Communist Party supporters were allowed to march in the city, but police arrested 20 after fights broke out. Other demonstrators have been relegated to a stadium in the St. Petersburg suburbs.

Human rights leader Lev Ponomarov told reporters, "They're scared people will hear the truth about Putin's regime."

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