G-8 Leaders Struggle for Common Ground

EVIAN, France – The world’s seven richest industrial countries and Russia struggled to reach common ground Saturday on a range of global issues in advance of an economic summit that was likely to be remembered more for the gulf separating the countries than for any modest achievements on combating AIDS or jump-starting global growth.

Aides to President Bush and the other leaders sought to resolve as many disputes as possible regarding various communiques that will be issued during the three days of talks that begin Sunday. The discussions were being held at a luxury hotel with magnificent views of Lake Geneva and the French and Swiss Alps.

Bush and other leaders of the Group of Eight summit countries were scheduled to arrive after helping Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrate the 300th anniversary of Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg, Russia — a warmup for 2006, when Russia for the first time will serve as host for the annual summit.

A diverse group of anti-globalization protesters, who were being kept far away from the meeting site by police and military units, clashed briefly among themselves and with police, who used tear gas to disperse a crowd of a few hundred.

Bush and the other leaders insisted that the G-8 still will be able to reach consensus on global issues despite the deep divisions in the group exposed by the Iraq war, which saw France, Russia, Germany and Canada refuse to join Britain, Japan and Italy in supporting the U.S.-led war.

Bush’s relations grew especially bitter with French President Jacques Chirac, who actively led the opposition to the Iraq war, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who won re-election with what the White House viewed as an anti-American as well as anti-war campaign.

Schroeder, who has not spoken to Bush since a brief exchange last November, said reporters should not overanalyze the body language.

“I think it’s unfair, given the agenda here, to watch how long the handshake will be,” said Schroeder, who was going to miss the opening sessions in order to attend a special party convention in Berlin.

Bush announced last week that he would leave the summit a day early to pursue Middle East peace negotiations, but the White House said the decision should not be interpreted as a snub to Chirac.

For his part, host Chirac said that he was not upset, reminding reporters that former President Bill Clinton had left the 2000 summit in Okinawa, Japan, early to oversee Middle East peace talks at Camp David in Maryland.

Global anti-poverty groups held out hope that the G-8 leaders would try harder to show progress on such issues as fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa in an effort to demonstrate a return to cooperation.

One area where a breakthrough could be achieved was in a major increase in financial support to battle AIDS in Africa. Bush said in a visit to Krakow, Poland, on Saturday that he would challenge other G-8 members to match a $15 billion, five-year U.S. boost in AIDS funding that Bush pushed through Congress in time for this year’s summit.

Bush said he would also showcase his administration’s proposals to double spending on foreign assistance to poor nations and to create a new famine relief fund, urging similar commitments to help poor nations that agree to pursue democratic and free-market reforms.

“If European governments will adopt these same standards, we can work side by side in providing the kind of development aid that helps transform entire societies,” Bush said in his Krakow speech.

Jamie Drummond, executive director of DATA, the advocacy group formed by Irish rock singer Bono, said he was growing more optimistic that the meetings would produce bigger commitments for the global AIDS fund created two years ago at the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy.

“There are tense negotiations going on to try to get something really delivered on AIDS,” Drummond said. “There is a desire to do it, but the question is how to find the money.”

In addition to the scourge of AIDS, the G-8 leaders were addressing efforts to meet other U.N. Millennium Development goals such as making clean water and schools available and cutting poverty in half by 2015.

A German official told reporters that the G-8 was expected to announce support for the creation of regional peacekeeping operations in Africa to respond to conflicts that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths over the past decade.

This year’s meeting will set a record in the number of developing countries invited to attend preliminary sessions. Leaders of 11 developing countries will participate in Sunday’s discussions, including officials from China, India, Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico and several poor African countries.