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G-8 Summit Strained by Middle East Fears

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.