Aides try to resolve disputes ahead of summit

Sunday, June 1, 2003

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.

The Group of Eight gathering, however, is likely to be remembered more for the disagreements 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 before the three days of talks that begin today. 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 G-8 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.

Protester violence

Swiss anti-G-8 protesters lit 50 bonfires along the lake shore in a peaceful demonstration. Later Saturday, though, dozens of protesters set fire to shops and smashed windows in downtown Geneva, where tens of thousands were to gather for a protest march today.

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 hadn't 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. The two leaders met Saturday at a banquet for world leaders in St. Petersburg, where Bush took the initiative to offer his hand and exchange a few words with the German leader.

Bush to leave early

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.

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.

The group was also expected to review the anemic performance of the global economy with Bush saying he would point to the recent congressional passage of a $350 billion tax cut package as the U.S. contribution to stronger global growth. Bush, in an interview with Russian television released Saturday, insisted that the administration still supported a strong dollar, but said that the dollar's value should be set by the marketplace.

The dollar hit an all-time low against the 12-nation euro this week, bringing smiles to U.S. manufacturers whose goods will cost less in European markets but raising complaints from American tourists to Europe and European companies who will face more competition from U.S. products.

"The marketplace is making decisions as to whether the dollar should be strong or not," Bush said.

One area where a breakthrough could be achieved at the summit 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.

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.

"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 is a desire to do it, but the question is how to find the money," Drummond said.

The G-8 leaders were also 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 today's discussions, including officials from China, India, Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico and several poor African countries.

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