MOSCOW – By almost any measure, Russia is the odd man out at the Group of Eight table, where the world's richest democracies gather to chart strategies to meet the world's challenges.
Russia has only the 12th largest economy in the world, after Brazil; state control over the economy is growing; and democratic institutions are on the retreat as President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin tightens its grip on power.
Yet this year it's Russia's turn to chair the elite club, and Russia is hosting the G8 summit in St. Petersburg on July 15-17.
Economically, Russia is a power, its global clout growing along with its oil and gas riches. Its burgeoning ties with China and its entree with Iran make it a player. It sees its G8 stewardship, while simultaneously chairing the Council of Europe, the Continent's premier human rights watchdog, as the culmination of efforts to regain the stature once held by the Soviet Union.
Even Kremlin critics such as former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov say that Russia, with all its blemishes, belongs.
It was Russia's reward for its quick transformation from dictatorship to democracy, he told The Associated Press.
President Putin's backtracking on democracy is "the wrong political course. That's not the fault of the Russian people, not the fault of Russia... The mistakes of the current leadership should not deprive the Russian people of this position."
The 1991 summit gave then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev a place at the table to encourage Moscow to keep its huge post-Soviet nuclear arsenal safe. In 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was invited as a gesture of support for the country's fledgling democracy — and as a degree of political compensation for NATO's eastward expansion into Russia's backyard, which Moscow had vehemently opposed.
"It was a stamp of respect that the West was going to be there to work with Russia to get through its economic difficulties during the 1990s and that investors could have confidence that Russia was a member of a big Western club," said Roland Nash, head of research at the Renaissance Capital investment bank in Moscow.
In 2002 the G7 made Russia a member and became the G8. That was the year it put forward its plan to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, pledging members to contribute $20 billion over the next decade to safeguard and dispose of old nuclear, chemical and biological weapons stocks in the former Soviet Union and help weapons scientists retool their skills for civilian pursuits.
That program, the G8 Global Partnership, is perhaps the best example of how Russian membership has made a difference, argues Jon Wolfstahl, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The partnership had painstakingly built disarmament projects and produced legal agreements that other countries could now adopt, magnifying the impact and greatly speeding up the work, he said.
Russia itself, being a member of the G8, felt compelled to increase its investment in nonproliferation, and can now share expertise with other countries that need it, Wolfstahl said. "You can include Russia not as a charitable recipient but as a peer engaged in what is a global effort to prevent the spread of these weapons."
Some argue that in spite of its reputation for democratic regression, Russia has used its chairmanship to inject much-needed openness and interaction with grass-roots groups into the G8. This year, for the first time, the so-called Civil G8 of nongovernmental organizations is working in parallel with the leaders to draw up an agenda for action in spheres ranging from the environment to education to human rights. Religious leaders and even a group of children will be holding their own G8 summits in Russia in coming weeks.
"The whole preparatory process is more open and accessible and able to be influenced by civil society of all sorts," said John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto.
But Russian activists are less confident, having seen Putin's administration introduce legislation this year that place severe restrictions on domestic and foreign non-governmental organizations.
Yuri Vdovin, a veteran St. Petersburg rights advocate who is taking part in the Civil G8, said it was too early to gauge results.
"I can only hope that the leaders of the seven will hear us, because Putin stopped listening a long time ago," Vdovin said.
"Only world public opinion, through the leaders of the seven, can have an influence on him."