December 30, 2005

It's an embarrassment, or worse. The club of major industrial nations, having allowed Russia to join its ranks a decade ago in a fit of inclusiveness, is now faced with the prospect of Moscow assuming its turn as president of the Group of Eight, as of Sunday. It's an embarrassment because Russia didn't turn out the way the leaders of the wealthy nations imagined it would: The idea was that letting Russia into the club would encourage reform and the strengthening of free markets and democracy, pillars of the G-8 way of thinking; instead, both are in considerable retreat.

Under President Vladimir V. Putin, power has been centralized in the Kremlin and democratic opposition exists only on the fringes. Governors are no longer elected but appointed. Private businesses have been brought to a large degree under Kremlin control; the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta calculates that 40 percent of Russia's GDP was accounted for by nine big corporations run by Mr. Putin's associates. The price of exported natural gas is used as a weapon to further Mr. Putin's foreign policy -- hardly a free-market ideal.

Corruption has been mushrooming. An independent judiciary is still a dream, and property rights are theoretical. Mr. Putin opposed democratic reform in Ukraine and has done all he can to prevent its occurring in Central Asia. Abuses and bloodshed continue in Chechnya.

The steering committee he has put together to oversee Russia's term as G-8 president includes Vladimir Koshin, head of the Kremlin property department (which controls a vast swath of wealth), and Yevgeny Murov, a career officer in the KGB and its successor organizations. The one advocate of openness and pluralism in the Putin administration, economics adviser Andrei N. Illarionov, quit Tuesday with a warning that Russia is heading in a dangerously wrong direction.

For a while, the leaders of Germany, Britain and the United States positively fawned over Mr. Putin, but recently the Bush administration has begun to lose its ardor, and has been more forthright in pointing out Russia's shortcomings. Now there have been calls -- from Congress and elsewhere -- to eject Russia from the G-8. This is an understandable position, but it's ultimately wrong.

The choice is not simply between loving Russia and spurning it. There is no reason that the West cannot continue to engage with Moscow while employing every persuasive means possible to try to bring about a change of course. Mr. Putin will resist; that doesn't mean that everyone else has to give up and go home. Leaving Russia on the outside would be a colossal mistake, because Russia is still in many ways a considerable power. This is going to be a year for gritting teeth and bearing up; it's only 367 days, after all, until Germany takes the helm.

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