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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

G8 Membership as an Exercise in Legitimacy

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This week will be the 10th time a Russian president has attended a Group of Eight summit as a full-fledged member of the club. The first meeting to consist of eight members of equal status, and not just seven members plus Russia, came in May 1998 in Birmingham, England. Just three months before Russia's default crisis, President Boris Yeltsin convinced his colleagues that Russia had entered an epoch of economic stability. One major theme during the summit was that of rising tensions in Kosovo and clashes there between Yugoslav army units and separatists. The G8 members called for peace. Before the next summit in K?ln, Germany, however, NATO took military action in Yugoslavia, and the same members found themselves looking for ways to end the bloodshed.

Russia's presence in the G8 caused disagreements right from the start. There are no criteria for membership, but the club has traditionally been an informal alliance of nations with leading economies and democracies. For the first few years, Russia clearly did not meet the economic requirements. But once its economy gained strength, doubts appeared as to Moscow's fulfillment of the necessary political prerequisites.

Having gained membership, it's unlikely that Russia would ever surrender this status of its own accord. Given that there is no formal procedure governing how countries join the G8, there is also no mechanism for determining how a member can be removed. Discussions about the state of the country's democracy are generally conducted before and after the summit, as it is considered impolitic to discuss the internal affairs of member nations during the event itself. The leaders gather not to criticize one another, but to emphasize their global leadership role.

That role, however, is increasingly being questioned. Other countries have emerged as centers of rapid growth and influence, and there is decreasing confidence that the traditional superpowers can alone resolve global problems.

Nevertheless, the upcoming summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, provides an excellent opportunity to sum up Russia's first decade in the world's most prestigious club.

What has the G8 gained from taking Russia aboard?

Perhaps the main thing the European powers, the United States, Canada and Japan have gained by inviting Russia to join is increased legitimacy for the organization. This was not clear immediately, but has become more so as Moscow departed from its exclusively pro-Western orientation and started to act as an individual "player" in relations with both developed and developing nations.

Despite questions about whether a country with Russia's political system and worldview belongs, its presence refutes charges that the G8 is merely a "club of rich colonizers." For the international community, which is increasingly divided into northern and southern camps, Russia's swings between pro-Western and anti-Western stances are the only sign of a degree of diversification in the G8. Interestingly, neither China nor India, the rising economic stars of the 21st century, seems to need membership in this club as confirmation of their new status and have not made a serious effort to join.

What, in turn, has Russia gained over the decade since it became a member?

Moscow's original desire to join was clearly based on considerations of prestige. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow was in dire need of confirmation of its status as a major power. Once Yeltsin had put down the parliament in 1993 and ushered in a constitution that settled the question of who would run the country, his attention turned to what was then the G7. Yeltsin first attended a G7 summit in Naples, Italy, in the summer of 1994. The organization represented the same kind of validation for Yeltsin in 1994 as the WTO seems to for President Vladimir Putin today.

But there is more to the story than the issue of prestige. The G8 is, perhaps, the only forum in which Moscow is called on to consider seriously questions of global development beyond the scope of its own immediate national interests.

The country's current foreign policy is extremely pragmatic and focused on a narrow, almost exclusively materialistic understanding of its national interests. Despite the fact that it is relatively wealthy by global standards, Russia has not quite overcome the perception it acquired of itself in the 1990s as a "poor cousin" among the family of nations. Russia is also wary of repeating the experience of the Soviet Union, which doled out money around the world with little concern for any financial return -- an approach that played a significant part in the country's disintegration.

Left to its own devices, Moscow takes part actively in discussions directly related to issues it sees as affecting its national interests, including energy security, nuclear nonproliferation, geostrategic stability and the territorial integrity of states. But only through its participation as a member of the G8 does it see the need to become involved in addressing global issues. Great power status not only provides Russia with greater opportunities to pursue its own interests, but also entails responsibility for maintaining international stability, even if this occasionally means limiting its own agenda.

After the catastrophic affects of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in December 2004, Beijing, as the natural leader in the hard-hit Pacific region, announced the allocation of a mere $2.6 million in aid. The reaction among the industrialized was immediate, questioning whether the emerging economic giant understood the international responsibilities its new stature entailed. China's leadership quickly got the point and within weeks had upped the pledge to $83 million -- a record sum for Beijing, but still insignificant given the size of its economy.

The fact that Russia offered only technical assistance in dealing with the catastrophe demonstrated that it is still only learning to mesh its national interests with a more global approach. Membership in the G8 is useful in this regard. This forum forces Russia to do more than fall back into endless opposition and negotiations, as we see today regarding the status of Kosovo, but instead to put forward its own alternative solutions.

Unfortunately, the G8 is still not a very effective mechanism for resolving international conflicts. The regulation of the conflict in Kosovo was considered a major success in 1999, when Germany last held the group's rotating presidency. Today it is clear that what was achieved was merely a postponement of the problem. Germany will play host to G8 discussions of the issue once again.

At the 2003 summit in Evian, France, the group somehow managed to heal the internal rift that had formed over the war in Iraq. At last year's summit in St. Petersburg the leaders announced a common position regarding the war in Lebanon, although it was essentially a policy of noninterference. Russian involvement gave greater legitimacy to all of these talks.

But this legitimacy will face an even stiffer test in Heiligendamm. For the first time within the organization's current framework there is talk of a return to the Cold War and an arms race, as Putin warned before heading for Germany. This is the first time the G8 will be called on to maintain the international strategic balance as an internal matter.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.