MOSCOW, Feb 12 (AFP): Russia marked its chairmanship of the Group of Eight powers this weekend with a distinct swagger.
Russia has taken a lashing this year over a crackdown on non-governmental organisations, Chechnya, and hard-nosed-some say hostile-energy policies toward neighbouring, pro- Western countries such as Ukraine and Georgia.
But that criticism was water off a duck's back Friday and Saturday as Moscow hosted the Group of Eight's finance ministers for talks on improving the global energy supply system.
"Nobody doubts Russia being a full member of the G8," Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said to questions over Russia's place in the elite club alongside Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
As the world's second biggest oil exporter and owner of a third of world gas reserves, Russia cannot easily be pushed around.
"Western governments are pragmatic and to them energy is more important than democracy," Vladimir Pribylovsky at the Panorama think tank in Moscow told AFP.
And with oil at about 70 dollars a barrel, President Vladimir Putin intends to play this energy card for all he can-and not in a way that the West will like, Pribylovsky said.
"The Kremlin is in euphoria over the forecasts for high energy prices in the coming years. They feel that methods of energy blackmail used against Ukraine and Georgia can be extended to make Russia a superpower again."
The decision by Russian gas giant Gazprom in January to cut off supplies to Ukraine temporarily over a pricing dispute, as well as the mysterious sabotage of the main gas pipeline to Georgia prompted accusations of bullying.
Other Western concerns include what human rights organisations say are torture and secret executions in rebel Chechnya, Moscow's support for authoritarian regimes such as Belarus and Uzbekistan, and a new law seen as curbing the freedom of NGOs.
But at the G8 finance meeting, Russia's pledge to become a secure energy supplier earned rave reviews.
French Finance Minister Thierry Breton said that a "new phase of dialogue has clearly begun today" and echoed a call by German Finance Minister Peer Steinbr|ck to cement Russia's role in the G8.
"Such an important partner must be with us at the table and not excluded," Breton said.