I was pleased when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became president of Brazil in 2003 because it reinforced a long-standing idea of mine with regards to our neighbors in the south: that not all Latin lefties were Soviet sycophants, and that socialist ideals, while marginal in the US, will remain attractive in South America and that the best course of action from the US perspective is to work with genuine democratic partners like Lula in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile while working against people like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
With that in mind, let me pose the following question: why the hell is Brazil not in the G8? This question is followed by the clarifying question: why is Russia in the G8 and Brazil is not? The G8 was founded in the early 1970s as a club for the world's large industrial democracies. Canada (pop. 33 million) perhaps no longer deserves a seat at the table, but due to its political ties to the UK, its cultural ties to France, and its economic ties to the US, no one questions the presence of Stephen Harper at the summit this week.
But if there is a question of who deserves to be the eighth member, then I think that Brazil wins it hands down. 188 million people live in Brazil, as opposed to just 142 million in Russia. Both the IMF and the World Bank rank Brazilian GDP ahead of Russian GDP. Brazil has been democratizing for far longer than Russia, and its elections are more competitive today than in Russia's managed or sham democracy. So again, why isn't Lula sitting in Vladimir Putin's seat this week?
The obvious answer is the complicated one. The West wants to influence Russia through institutional partnerships and the G8 is a mechanism for doing that. But when it comes to the West and Russia I think of the positions of two countries on Russia's border that have astonishingly different relationships with Russia and try as I might I can't find definitive reasons why the Russians, in particular, see these countries so differently.
I keep coming back to the idea of Toomas Hendrik Ilves: that Russia sees Estonia or Georgia as threats because it sees democracies on its borders as threatening Russia's own sham democracy by example.
The obvious counterpoint to this is that Russia shares a very long border with a former province that has been democratic for quite some time. In fact, wasn't it Finland that first allowed womens' suffrage in 1906? I know that Finland has a very different history from Estonia, but at the same time, the Finnish and Estonian reactions to Russification in the late 19th century caused similar results, the birth of national republicanism that led to all-out independence, granted by the Russians to the Finns and Estonians in the same house at the same time, just a few blocks from where I am typing this.
Yet Putin has visited Finland uncounted times, and Estonia remains a continuous focus of anti-everything Russian propaganda. The Finnish example certainly poses a direct challenge to Russian democracy, yet for whatever reason the Russians choose to ignore it, to the point that discussion of the Winter War is, as journalist Christopher Marcisz recently noted, off limits.
Russian financial interest in Estonia can also be discounted in a similar manner of comparison with Finland. Finnish trade with Russia substantially dwarfs Estonian trade, and the Finnish market of 5+ million people is enormous compared to any profits gained by a presence in Estonia.
So it interests me why Finland is continuously ignored from the man on the Russian street, while Estonia is paid attention. Finland is "different" and "far", while Estonia is "closer" and "more threatening". This is interesting because most Russians that I have spoken with indeed see Estonia as "far" culturally. To the bemusement of real Scandinavians, the "Soviet Scandinavian" image remains. In all times that I explained my knowledge of Estonian or my daughters usage of it to Russians, I was told that "Estonian is one of the Scandinavian languages" (contain your laughter). And I have seen on forums, like Lonely Planet, Russians who think that they can't use Russian in Estonia because of this cultural and national gulf!
Yet, again, we come back to statements made in the past week. Tarja Halonen exclaims that the "world needs a strong Russia", while Toomas Hendrik Ilves jets off to Prague to hangout with Vaclav Havel and constructively criticize Russia, even questioning its membership in the G8.
"If it is true that Democracies do not go to war with each other, then what is a country that threatens to target its nuclear missiles at Europe doing in the G-8, the club of large industrial Democracies? Either the proposition is wrong or the G-8 is based on something else than a common commitment to democratic rule," Ilves said.
These are approaches commensurate with each country's needs and they also highlight the two different approaches of the West to Russia and how it is that Vladimir Putin gets to share jokes about, no doubt, dead donkey ears and monsters with claws and horns, with Angela Merkel while Lula's presence at such a summit would merely be in an auxiliary capacity, even though his country is more deserving of being there.
The Finnish approach stresses accomodation with the realities of Russian illiberalism, while the Estonian approach is to continuously take the offensive against Russia so it has to play defense less of the time. These are both related to the security needs of both countries, and have as much to do with Estonia and Finland as they have to do with Russia.
But somewhere in the middle one can see that Finland is shown respect from Russia while Estonia is not, yet at the same time Russia gains power at the expense of Russian appeasement while more true democrats like Lula are left out in the cold.
So the question presents itself: what do we want out of this West in which we live vis a vis Russia. One where we ignore Russia and Russia ignores us, or one where we challenge Russia and hope it lives up to that challenge?