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On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin takes the helm of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations. Western countries are worried about his growing authoritarianism. But as NPR's Gregory Feifer reports, there are also hopes that the G8's other members will use the opportunity to push Moscow to make changes.
GREGORY FEIFER reporting:
Russian began attending meetings of the G7 after the Soviet collapse in 1991. The group became the G8 in 1998 when former President Bill Clinton invited his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, to join, partly to encourage his Westerning reforms. Bernard Sucher is chair of Moscow's Alfa Capital Investment Bank. He says Russia should never have been invited to join the G7, but that its members now have to make the best of their decision.
Mr. BERNARD SUCHER (Alfa Capital Investment Bank): While it is awkward for the other members of the G8 perhaps to have Russia as a first-time president of the G8, that is also an enormous challenge to the Russians to live up to that responsibility.
FEIFER: Putin will hit a pinnacle of his presidency when he assumes the G8 leadership. He's expected to use the position to advance one of his main goals: showcasing Russia as an important player on the international stage. A big concern for Western members of the G8 will be how to address criticism over Putin's backtracking on democracy. That will come in July when Putin hosts the G8 leaders in St. Petersburg. Sarah Mendelson is a scholar at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ms. SARAH MENDELSON (Center for Strategic and International Studies): What happens in the meeting if the Putin administration continues its steady drip, drip, drip of activities that shut down civil society, that jeopardize democratic institutions, whatever institutions still exist?
FEIFER: Since taking office five years ago, Putin has cracked down on the free press, replaced elected regional governors with Kremlin appointees and overseen a period of growing corruption. This month Parliament passed a bill restricting the activities of non-governmental organizations, seen as the last sphere of public life outside the Kremlin's control. Putin's top economic adviser quit this week, saying he was no longer able to state his opinions publicly. Andrei Illarionov cites a recent survey by Freedom House.
Mr. ANDREI ILLARIONOV: (Through Translator) The index of political freedom in Russia, which has been dropping over the past several years, has passed a critical point. In past years Russia was partly free; now it's become not free.
FEIFER: When he took office five years ago, Putin promised Russians Moscow would regain its lost status as a great power. He's pursued that goal by leveraging Russia's growing role as an oil and gas exporter amid global worries about energy security. But Nicolay Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center says the Kremlin's much criticized takeover of the country's energy industry may not be all bad.
Mr. NICOLAY PETROV (Moscow Carnegie Center): Perhaps it's better to be important due to oil and gas than to be important due to weapons, just like in case of the Soviet Union.
FEIFER: Petrov says Western countries should use Putin's G8 presidency as an opportunity to engage Moscow. Disagreements over issues like Moscow's support for Iran's nuclear program may make Russia's leadership a contentious one. But those observers who see the G8's importance as more symbolic than real expect little more to come under Russia's leadership than photo ops in St. Petersburg and bland statements about the need for economic cooperation and fighting terrorism. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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