G8 to bring Russian city to standstill
WHOLE sections of one of Europe's most beautiful cities cordoned off. More than 20,000 police, special forces and troops moving in to set up a security ring of steel. Ports closed and tourist cruise ships banned from a famous waterway, but millions spent on upgrading airports and roads to welcome powerful visitors while any protest is stifled.
It must be the G8 summit, and Russian president Vladimir Putin is taking no chances as he prepares to host this year's meeting of the world's most powerful leaders in the grounds of a former royal palace in St Petersburg this month.
If it is the Russian premier's aim to showcase his country as a stable European-style democracy, emerging opposition says he is going a strange way about it.
Russia's concerns are less to do with terrorists and anti-globalisation protesters - both of whom made an appearance in Britain during last year's summit at Gleneagles - and more the appearance of an umbrella of opposition groups who accuse President Putin of acting like a dictator.
Opposition supporters say police have already begun systematic raids in the northern city to question likely protesters and deter them from grouping to form a visible presence to the global media.
Nevertheless, an 'alternative summit' is being planned, led by former world chess champion turned activist Garry Kasparov. The 'Different Russia' forum will convene in Moscow three days before the start of the summit on July 15, bringing together the extreme left Labour Party, the radical National Bolshevik Party and the liberal Union of Rightist Forces.
Their objective is to demand that the rest of the G8 nations boycott the summit, because they claim Putin has crushed Russian democracy.
But the St Petersburg police raids, rather than suppress dissent, seem only to have inflamed it in a city that prides itself in being the most liberal in Russia.
In one case highlighted by the St Petersburg Times, police arrived to find an activist, Vladimir Soloveichik, out, and so insisted on questioning his 67-year-old housebound mother instead.
"They asked the old woman whether she ever belonged to any political party and whether she attends any political gatherings or owns a car," Soloveichik said.
Official fears centre on a planned anti-globalisation protest to be held in St Petersburg as the summit starts. Only a few thousand Russians, with at most a sprinkling of foreign activists - most are unlikely to obtain visas - are expected, but they will pose a big dilemma for Putin.
If the former KGB agent goes easy on opponents, he may find demonstrators dominate the event. If he cracks down, he risks being accused of reverting to Soviet methods of suppression. The protests will add tension to an already difficult summit that comes amid deteriorating relations between east and west.
In May, US vice president Dick Cheney accused Russia of rolling back democracy and of using gas and oil as "tools of intimidation or blackmail". Some US politicians have called for Russia to be expelled from the G8. Other flashpoints include elections in Belarus and Ukraine that Russia attempted to influence, the war in Chechnya and Russia's support for Hamas in Palestine.
In an attempt to dampen down western criticism, Kremlin spin doctor Vladislav Surkov, part of Putin's inner team, made a rare public appearance last week, telling journalists that Russia's policies were "common European values".
Fending off questions about a leadership which controls parliament, government, all national television stations, and which has scrapped elections for regional governors, Surkov accused the west of double standards: "They frequently tell us that Russia has a managed parliament, but are we really the only ones?"
For Putin, the summit represents the biggest international gathering in Russia during his seven-year presidency, and an important public relations coup in a country where poverty and corruption are denting his once stratospheric popularity. A major US PR firm, Ketchum, has been hired to help buff up the Putin regime's image.
Younger opponents say they will use the internet to plan 'flash crowd' protests, with trams used to hang anti-government slogans. Opposition parties will hold a congress elsewhere in St Petersburg featuring a broad spectrum from green parties to the ultra-nationalist National Bolshevik Party.
Big hitters include Lev Ponomaryov, leader of the Russian Movement for Human Rights, and Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute for Problems of Globalisation, both big names in the human rights movement.
It is this type of activity that has led to the crackdown on potential protesters. Even the 78-year-old leader of the St Petersburg Marxist Association has been ordered to attend a police station for an "interview".
Police say they have legitimate security concerns. Last year, St Petersburg saw a wave of more than 700 attacks on tourists, most in the city centre, including the knife-point robbery of the British ambassador and his wife. And until recently, this seemingly tranquil city was nicknamed Russia's "murder capital" with mafia killings running at one a week.
But there are the usual grumbles too about the disruption of ordinary life in a city that thrives on tourism, as well as the cost of hosting the three-day summit.
The main Pulkovo airport, which has undergone a three billion rouble (60.5m) reconstruction to allow it to take the world's biggest aircraft, will be closed to all but official planes.
The River Neva, usually busy with tourist boats, will be closed to all except the security services. Tourists will be allowed into some of the city's historic quarters but only along heavily patrolled roads. The US embassy has warned its citizens - President Bush and his huge official entourage excepted - to stay away.
Meanwhile, millions more roubles have been lavished on one of the city's most popular green spaces, the Constantine Palace, the former royal residence set in 200 acres of its own grounds on the city outskirts.
It is here, in tsarist splendour, that the eight leaders and their officials will meet to go through their agenda.
More than 20 two-storey houses have been refurbished to provide accommodation for the leaders and their delegations. Sculptures of Greek mythological leaders have been scattered around in honour of the distinguished guests.
If Putin has his way, then the tranquility inside the security cordon will be matched by the peacefulness throughout the city. Ruslan Linkov, leader of the Democratic Russia organisation in St Petersburg, said: "The police are trying to put all life in the city to a standstill during the summit."
ENERGY IS THE ISSUE
UNLIKE at Gleneagles last year where the global poverty dominated the agenda, the security of energy supplies will be the main discussion point.
The West says Russia cannot buy control of European gas suppliers unless the West is allowed to buy into Russian gas supplies, at the moment controlled by the giant Kremlin-controlled Gazprom monopoly.
Other summit priorities will include education and the fight against infectious diseases, with officials saying both subjects will produce ambitious declarations of action by all sides but no new initiatives.
Iran is also likely to play a major role on the summit agenda. Tehran has yet to give up the option of uranium enrichment, with the big nations, most of whom will be at the summit, unable to agree on a set of sanctions against Iran.
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