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NGOs Divided On Message For G8 Summit

The Moscow Times

March 13, 2006

By Stephen Boykewich

International NGOs struggled to agree on their message for Group of Eight leaders, with participants at a major conference Friday split on policy recommendations and the health of Russian civil society.

About 350 activists ended a meeting of the so-called Civil G8 on Friday after two days of discussions and an unprecedented meeting with all eight sherpas, or government point men, from the club of rich democracies. Many activists insisted the event had been a success despite of delays drafting its final documents.

"Everyone came with different opinions, and the fact that we came together on as many points as we did is a fantastic success," Tanya Monaghan, head of the International Chamber of Commerce's Moscow office, said at a news conference after the discussions wrapped up Friday.

The main task of the Civil G8, a coalition of dozens of Russian and foreign nongovernmental organizations, is to try to put civil society's concerns to G8 leaders.

But on the critical topic of energy security -- Russia's stated priority during its G8 presidency this year -- organizers said the group's recommendations to G8 governments were at least a week away.

"It's a very big document, and it's still very raw," Leonid Grigoryev, president of the Institute of Energy and Finance, told Friday's news conference. "It wouldn't be a good idea to distribute it in its current form."

Grigoryev said the document recommended the use of alternative energy sources and an end to government subsidies for nuclear power.

President Vladimir Putin is calling for a huge expansion in Russia's atomic energy industry.

"We're not so naive as to think that, as of tomorrow, atomic and other 'dirty' energy sources shouldn't be used anymore," Greenpeace Russia director Sergei Tsyplenkov said at the Civil G8 conference Friday. "That's why we consider it very important that the G8 leaders support the development of alternative, ecologically pure energy sources."

The delay will prevent the group from putting forward its recommendations at two forums in Moscow this week: the International Conference on Energy Security, scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, and a meeting of G8 energy ministers on Thursday.

Nigel Martin, president of the Forum International de Montreal, said that the lack of clear agreement at the conference could limit its effectiveness. "If you want to influence a G8 group, you've got to have some consensus," Martin said on the sidelines of the conference Friday.

But he and other NGO leaders agreed that the chance to address all eight sherpas had been a significant success. A similar NGO conference before last year's G8 summit in Gleneagles attracted only five sherpas.

Addressing the sherpas "was an important step for us," said Denise Roza, head of the NGO Perspektiva, which focuses on improving the lives of people with disabilities. Roza's working group recommended G8 initiatives to expand inclusive education for disabled children.

"We are hopeful that our recommendations make it to the leaders," Roza said Sunday. "Even if one of them makes it that far, we will be very happy."

"The sherpas are handpicked by the leaders of these countries because they trust them absolutely," Martin said. "We know they have major influence."

Martin's organization assembled the first G8 NGO conference before the 2002 Kananaskis G8 summit in Canada. Similar meetings took place before G8 summits in 2003 and 2005. There was no meeting in 2004, when the United States held the rotating G8 presidency, due to U.S. objections, Martin said.

This year's event came amid anxiety about Russian civil society after a spying scandal purportedly involving British diplomats and a controversial NGO law that comes into effect next month.

Yury Dzhibladze, president of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, told the conference Friday that members of the working group on security issues had discussed "dangers posed by the weakening of democratic institutions" in Russia.

A proposal that international organizations monitor the implementation of the law on NGOs "was met with applause," Dzhibladze said.

Roza was one of several NGO activists who said they were impressed by the apparent level of official support for the event. The Presidential Council for Fostering the Development of Civil Society, which organized the conference, asked Perspektiva to invite a group of international experts on education disability to attend. The presidential council provided visa support and paid all travel and lodging expenses for the experts.

"It was very beneficial for all of us," Roza said. "Even if nothing goes beyond this -- and I hope it will -- we've made new partners and new friends who understand our needs in Russia and are thinking about ways to partner with us."

A sharply dissenting opinion came from EcoDefense, which complained in a statement that the conference was "aimed at prettifying civil society," rather than empowering NGOs.

"The way the forum was organized and the makeup of its participants are such that any constructive proposals from active community members simply cannot make their way into the concluding documents and reach the G8 in any form," said the statement by EcoDefense co-chair Vladimir Slivyak.

Martin said that he had come to Moscow concerned about reports of an official crackdown on civil society, but that he was leaving far more optimistic.

"I've seen the fruits of a birth of a free, dynamic, sophisticated civil society," he said. "If I were a sherpa, I'd be very impressed."

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