Expel Russia from the G8?

About the author
Pamela A. Jordan is an associate professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, Canada). She is the author of Defending Rights in Russia: Lawyers, the State, and Legal Reform in the Post-Soviet Era (University of British Columbia Press, 2005).  

In recent months, calls for Russia's expulsion from the G8 have mounted steadily, while opponents of the idea have countered with talk of the need to engage, not confront, Russia. Both sides have advanced cogent arguments. But Russia's recent assault on South Ossetia and Georgian territory, has dramatically altered the terms of this debate. The grounds for expelling Russia from the G8 have never been stronger. But are they, even now, strong enough to warrant crossing such a Rubicon?

As much as Georgia deserves our support and assistance, its plight should not blind us to the facts. The likelihood is that the costs of expelling Russia from the G8 will outweigh any benefits or short-term satisfaction that might be gained by taking such a step.

The argument for expulsion

Advocates of expulsion have much to support their position. Since Russia joined the G7 to form the G8 in 1998, Russia's political system has grown less democratic. As early as 2006, the year that Russia held the G8 presidency, Britain's Foreign Policy Centre concluded that Russia did not qualify for G8 membership under the G6's founding declaration issued at the 1975 Rambouillet Summit.

In addition, over the past five years, Russia's leaders have become increasingly inclined to emphasise their country's differences from the West. One case in point is Russia's opposition to the use of economic sanctions against human rights violators, as shown this summer, during the G8's effort to deal with the election crisis in Zimbabwe. In July, at the G8 Summit in Tokyo, Japan, G8 leaders released a statement condemning Mugabe's regime and hinting at possible future action. Shortly afterward, however, Russia, along with China, vetoed a resolution that authorised the use of economic sanctions against Mugabe. G7 governments were surprised by Russia's veto, while the Russian government claimed that the Zimbabwe government's actions did not qualify as an international security threat.

Moreover, Russia has not been fully complying with its G8 commitments. Each year, the University of Toronto's G8 Research Group evaluates country compliance with the G7/G8's annual priority commitments, which typically amount to 10 percent of the total commitments made in a given year . Between 1998 and 2008, Russia scored either at or near the bottom of these ratings. It earned its lowest compliance ratings for commitments related to conflict prevention/regional security, trade/intellectual property rights, and transnational crime and corruption. Its compliance record on development, environmental, and energy-related commitments has been mixed.

Against expulsion

Still, those who believe that expelling Russia from the G8 is the best way to punish its aggressive and uncooperative behaviour, should think again. There are at least three reasons not to do so. First, it will give ultra-nationalists-who claim that the West prefers Russia to be politically and economically weak-a freer hand in shaping policy decisions and suppressing internal dissent. Second, no member state has fully complied with its G8 commitments, which sometimes number as many as 300 a year. They are not legally binding, and even G8 governments that strongly back them are sometimes prevented from taking action because of strong domestic opposition. In some years, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan received lower overall compliance ratings than Russia. Third, the G8 Research Group's reports and other evidence suggest that Russia's inclusion in the elite leadership group has actually had measurably positive, albeit modest, effects.

Russia tends to earn its highest compliance ratings for G8 commitments concerning non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and counter-terrorism. The fact that Russian officials view these commitments to be in their country's material interests and a means of boosting Russia's global standing should not lessen their significance as worthwhile areas of cooperation.

The key G8 initiative in the area of non-proliferation is the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons Materials of Mass Destruction, launched in 2002. Most of its projects have focused on Russia, including the disposal of Soviet-era nuclear submarines, nuclear materials, and chemical weapons. In addition, at the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg in July 2006, former Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President George W. Bush announced their plans to negotiate an agreement on building international centres in Russia for uranium enrichment; the uranium would be used by developing countries in their own civil nuclear energy programs, as a way to avoid further potential nuclear arms proliferation. Other G8 leaders endorsed their plans, and Russia and the US signed the agreement in May 2008.

In terms of counter-terrorism, Russia has complied with G8 commitments concerning terrorist financing (Financial Action Task Force) and transport security. At the 2006 Summit, Putin and Bush announced a Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) to augment the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. Since then, over 70 states have become GICNT partners.

Additional G8 commitment areas where Russia has demonstrated a high level of compliance include debt relief (including within the framework of the IMF's and World Bank's HIPC Initiative) and supporting the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Clearly, Russia's oil and gas revenues have allowed it to act as a donor state, in stark contrast to its initial supplicant role vis-à-vis the G7 during the cash-poor Yeltsin era. Russia donated USD $30 million to the Global Fund between 2001 and 2006. Of the G8 member states, Russia is third in terms of the total amount of Third World debt forgiven (over $30 billion), behind Japan and France.

Ultimately, the Putin regime decided that contributing to Third World debt relief and the Global Fund would improve Russia's global image, benefit its own economy by forging ties with states that might become trade partners, and demonstrate to other G8 nations Russia's responsibility as a member.

Gains of increased contact

Russian officials say that Russia's membership lends legitimacy to the G8 because, more than any other G8 member, it represents the energy-related concerns of developing countries and understands those countries' problems better because of its own recent socioeconomic struggles. Whether this portrayal is accurate, and whether Russia's calls for G8 expansion are sincere, one can agree that Russian officials now understand how multilateral action is often the best solution to global security dilemmas like widespread poverty and pandemics.

Another overlooked aspect of Russia's G8 membership is the consequent benefit to its nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). In 2006, during Russia's G8 presidency, the Russian government claimed that it had democratised G8 decision-making by allowing Russian and foreign NGOs to create a new consultation mechanism called the Civil G8.

The Civil G8 did not grant civil society groups any effective check on the G8 leaders' decisionmaking authority. But participation in it did offer Russian NGOs some opportunities. Twenty Russian participants whom I surveyed about their Civil G8 experiences appreciated acting on the global stage, gaining access to government officials, and meeting representatives of other NGOs. Human rights activists in particular used the Civil G8 as an arena for criticising a restrictive NGO law and Putin's human rights record. Foreign participants praised its Russian organisers for reaching out to foreign NGOs and empowering Russian civil society.

Lastly, G8 summits and ministerial-level meetings provide spaces for increased contact among both leaders and lower-level officials. Such meetings do not necessarily result in better relations among Russian officials and their G8 counterparts. For example, the meeting between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at this year's G8 Summit in Japan did not result in much agreement. But they do present extra opportunities and usefully informal settings for constructive engagement.

Respect & hypocrisy

True, it would be desirable to hold Russia more accountable to G8 standards of conduct. Its present actions against Georgia highlight the urgency of this issue even more than before. How can this be done?

First, other G8 governments need to understand how Russian officials prefer to be portrayed and treated, and, when possible, to respect that preference. It is already well known that Russia wants to be viewed as a separate centre of power and treated as an equal partner (hence its wish to join the WTO and take part fully in meetings of G7 finance ministers).

Russians still value G8 membership as a way to enhance their country's global reputation and participate in top-level negotiations over key global security issues. The G8 Research Group awarded Russia its highest compliance rating during the year of its G8 presidency, which suggests that when Russian officials are the authors or co-authors of specific G8 initiatives, they have a stronger stake in their success.

Lastly, if other G8 leaders wish to see Russia act more responsibly on the world stage, they need to set a better example. Russians are quick to perceive hypocrisy when other G8 members who fail to live up to their own human rights obligations, especially as they wage the so-called war on terror, accuse Russia of violating international law.

Under present circumstances, expelling Russia from the G8 is, in many ways, a justifiable course of action. It is a painful dilemma. Expulsion will do nothing to help Georgia, any more than strong talk or symbolic gestures have helped to end Chinese hegemony in Tibet. But it will very probably have adverse consequences that G7 governments need to think hard about now. Supporting Russia's membership in the G8 does not necessarily mean that the West condones all its actions. But, in the long run, it might signal to its leaders, and to average Russians, that Russia's economic and political stability is in the West's best interests and that Western nations value it as a partner in solving a number of key global problems.