Entry to Group of Eight a final prize for Putin

MOSCOW, Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin won the prized trophy of Group of Eight membership at a summit in Canada, but some back home still wonder how a country so poor could be a true member of the rich nations’ club.

After years of G-8 summits that won Putin and predecessor Boris Yeltsin spots in the class photo, but no place at certain meetings, Russia at last won formal membership on Thursday, with a rotation slot to host the yearly gathering in 2006.

The induction follows an ebullient Russia-U.S. summit last month and the launch of a new cooperation scheme between Russia and NATO, all signs of burgeoning friendship since Putin lined up squarely behind Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Putin, who has long been at pains to show that his pro-Western stance pays real dividends, also won from fellow G-8 states US$20 billion in aid over 10 years for decommissioning Soviet-era nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

But the aid brought home the point that Russia is the only member of the industrial powers club that needs to ask for help, instead of lavishing it on others.

“For years now Russia has been signalling the West that we want to be closer, and the West has been signalling back that they want to see how things turn out here,” Oleg Morozov, head of a centrist group in Russia’s parliament, told Reuters.

“Russia’s acceptance as a full-fledged member of the G-8 is evidence that the signals Russia and the West were sending each other have been heard by both sides, and understood.”

The daily Vremya Novostei wrote: “The G-8 summit that ended yesterday in Canada was a memorable milestone on the path of hastening Russia’s drawing closer to the West.

“After the May breakthroughs with America and NATO, the leaders of all the world’s leading countries have now unambiguously announced their support of Kremlin policies.”

But Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the liberal Yabloko party, noted that Russia still has some way to go to catch up with the members of what was once a Group of Seven: the United States, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, Britain and Italy.

“Equal partnership between Russia and other members of the G-8 exists, of course, but not on all questions,” he told Reuters. “Above all, Russia lags behind the other members in economic development.

“Twenty billion (dollars) is about a third of our entire Russian budget. If such large amounts are sent just to resolve one state task — and the state faces thousands of such tasks — that means the financial health of the state is not so good.”

The daily Novoye Izvestia wrote: “Such massive aid is usually a testament…to the poor state of the recipient, which is unable to deal with problems on its own.

“So the ‘equality’ that has been achieved is still a bit flawed,” it added