Russia Focuses on Energy Security During G-8 Presidency

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Playing host to G-8 ministers for the first time over the weekend, Russia -- the world's second largest oil exporter -- declared energy security would be a priority during its term as president of the industrialized nation grouping.

The meeting of finance ministers came at a time when some countries are concerned, not just about Russia's reliability as a supplier of oil and natural gas, but also about its democratic credentials.

President Vladimir Putin gave an upbeat assessment of his country's economic position, saying it recorded more than six percent growth last year, rant a large trade surplus and saw gold and foreign currency reserves reach $188 billion.

Russia was prepared to contribute around $600 million to the World Bank's International Development Association, which assists the world's poorest countries, he said.

It would also make early repayments amounting to nearly $12 billion of its Soviet-era debt to the Paris Club, a group of lending nations.

The ministers in a statement voiced concern about "high and volatile" oil prices but predicted continued global economic growth during 2006.

However, this required an improved, market-oriented approach for providing sufficient energy resources, they said.

The ministers also called for further progress in "implementing policies that contribute to the gradual resolution of global imbalances and promote sustainable growth of the global economy."

Ministers from theG-8 - the U.S., Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and Russia - also held talks with officials from China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Russia, which took over the rotating G-8 presidency at the start of the new year, will host the annual summit of leaders July 15-17 in St. Petersburg.

Putin wants energy security, the fight against infectious diseases and education to be priority agenda items for the gathering.

Russia's leadership of the grouping has been rather controversial and some U.S. lawmakers have questioned its place in the G-8. There have even been calls to expel Russia on the grounds the Kremlin was drifting away from democratic norms.

Two recent issues that have alarmed outside governments are the dispute between Russia and former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia over energy supplies; and a new law passed last month restricting the activities of non-governmental organizations.

In Britain, a number of lawmakers have put their names to a motion critical of Russia's chairmanship of the grouping, whose founding declaration cites such criteria as the rule of law, freedom of speech, and global economic clout.

A British think tank closely associated with Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party late last month released a report calling Russia's G-8 one-month old presidency "a PR disaster."

Putin did not need to improve his public relations skills, said the Foreign Policy Center, but rather "to genuinely respect the rule of law and democratic freedoms."

Putin strongly defended Russia's membership, saying his country could prevent the G-8 from becoming an "assembly of fat cats," by fighting for poorer nations from the perspective of a developing country.

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