The Australian government has recently defended its controversial decision to allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the G20 leaders’ meeting to be held in Brisbane. The Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s main defence that inviting Putin would subject him to a ‘full and frank discussion’ is both highly implausible and in clear contradiction to Australia’s previously adversarial stance towards the Russian Prime Minister. As Opposition leader Bill Shorten put it the government had “gone from talking tough to trying to pretend Putin coming here isn’t an issue Australians are concerned about”.
There was nothing accommodating about the Australian Prime Minister’s treatment of Putin over the MH17 disaster on 7 August this year. Mr Abbott, accused Russia of preparing to invade Ukraine. Telling him he “has been a bully”, Abbott called on Putin to hold back his forces from crossing the border into Ukraine or risk becoming an international outcast.
“Right at this moment, Russian forces are massing on the border with Ukraine,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Sydney, “If there is any movement by his forces across the border, it won’t be a humanitarian mission, it will be an invasion. It will be an invasion.”
Ten weeks ago, clearly, Abbott was disputing Putin’s intentions in Ukraine and threatening to review Russia’s invitation to the G20. Now comes a complete back-down. Instead of using its status as host and its seat on the UN Security Council to prevail upon other G20 members to back Australia in declaring Putin unwelcome, the Abbott government appears to have become weak-kneed. Yet there is ample precedent. Australia could have followed the G7 example from June when the planned G8 Sochi meeting, to be hosted by Russia, was cancelled with G7 leaders holding their own meeting without Putin. They underscored the point by symbolically choosing to meet in Brussels, the headquarters of NATO and the EU instead.
Why the change of heart? So far the explanations are neither convincing nor adequate. The Australian public and the international community have been fobbed off with lame excuses about consensus, the need for open discussion and the MH17 red-herring. Joe Hockey, yesterday pleaded that Australia was powerless to disinvite:
“The G20 is an international gathering that operates by consensus – it’s not Australia’s right to say yes or no to individual members of the G20. I think it will be pretty crystal clear that we think that Russia needs to fully cooperate in the investigation into the MH17 atrocity.
I think it’s the world’s expectation on Russia that there will be full cooperation with the investigation and there will be a willingness to hand over to police for trial anyone who Russia might have access to who turns out to have played a part in the downing of that aircraft.”
The downing of MH17 and its implications must not be overplayed as dominant and problematic as it may be. Whilst Russia’s involvement in this outrage alone should merit it exclusion from the meeting, that exclusion must rest also on the many other ways in which Putin has demonstrated that his conduct violates all reasonable expectations of human behaviour let alone the actions of a reputable statesman let alone any type of international citizen. Putin’s Russia is a country where political rivals and vocal critics are often killed, and at least sometimes the order comes directly from the president’s office.
Gessen, Masha (2012-03-01). The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladmir Putin (p. 226). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.
Nor should ‘our right to say no’ to the G20 be underplayed. It may not be Australia’s right to hijack G20 consensus protocols but it is most definitely Australia’s responsibility to take a stand and to take the initiative in lobbying to change that consensus. Otherwise, especially in the light of Abbott’s earlier condemnation of Putin, Australia loses credibility and sacrifices its capacity to be a useful world citizen as far as it is able. Doubtless that capacity has already been significantly compromised by the Abbott government’s stance on a range of critical issues including global warming, climate change, the sale of brown coal, carbon trading, renewable energy, asylum seeker detention and its unquestioned allegiance to US foreign policy in Iraq. An Australian stand against Putin, might begin to stem if it cannot staunch international critics of our credentials as global citizens with a commitment to a sustainable future.
Ironically, in inviting Putin, Abbott risks undermining his own stance on terror. Refusing the Russian leader is clearly mandated by our newly revamped, stronger anti-terror stance. Whilst some may quibble at the label terrorist, Putin is no stranger to rule by terror, it is intrinsic to his absolutism and his determination to eliminate of all forms of domestic opposition from liquidating opponents to control over media. It is also plays an integral part in his aggressive foreign policy of annexing neighbouring states. It is seen in his support of the genocidal strategies of Syria’s Assad.
Clearly Putin’s behaviour at home and abroad, disbars him from Brisbane’s G20 event. It is, therefore, vital that Australia summons the resolve required to put pressure on other members of the G20 to exclude the Russian leader or hold the meeting somewhere else. The consequences of making him welcome threaten the very foundations of the G20 itself if not the spirit of international cooperation whilst signalling that we may be afraid of him or just don’t know what to do with him.
Inviting Putin to Brisbane helps give the Russian President the legitimacy he covets, the legitimacy that helps him cloak Russia’s war of terror in a veneer of acceptance. That rule of terror includes the annexation of Crimea, ethnic cleansing, abduction, torture and murder, the downing of flight MH17 plane; violating international law yet claiming that Russia is not “involved.” Do we really need to help him legitimise his “humanitarian” convoys and referendums in Ukraine, his assistance to Syria? Are we to condone his economic sabotage, Russia’s recent history of quietly undermining US and world economies? In 1998, for example, Russia defaulted on $40 billion of domestic debt, forcing the Federal Reserve to engineer a bailout of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management.
More recently Russia’s ‘aid’ to Ukraine represents a unique form of political control if not loan sharking. Instead of handing aid money directly to Ukraine, Russia had the Ukrainian government float $3 billion in bonds denominated in Euros. Russia then bought the bonds. A cunning provision written into the bond is that if the Ukraine’s debt-to-GDP level reached 60%, Russia could call the bonds for immediate payment. The highly unusual qualification brings Ukraine further under Russian control. Today, Ukraine has Eurobonds outstanding to several countries, so it has no option of defaulting on Russia alone because it would hurt the price of all their debt. Putin’s foresight thus also ensures that US aid money will find its way to Moscow.
Groucho Marx’s wish not to belong to any club that would accept him as a member applies to Putin. His involvement demeans the status of the G20, itself a creature which has yet to acquire international credibility in achieving long-term strategic coordination between all members on some of major global issues or in failing to reinvigorate global trade or complete the WTO Doha development round. To its critics, including Australia’s Chris Berg of IPA it seems more a meeting to exchange platitudes about free trade and to endorse neo-con economic positions about small government than pursue significant international reforms such as the green agenda proposed by Korea or Bill Gates’ recommendations for alternative methods of financing development tabled in 2011. In brief, Putin needs the G20 more than it needs him. The Abbott government, on the other hand, urgently needs to summon the courage to say ‘Nyet’ to Putin before it further loses its will and with it the capacity and the credibility to achieve any significant initiative as an international citizen. To say nothing of the continuing cost to its electoral support and credibility at home.