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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 18:19 GMT 19:19 UK
Q&A: What is the G8?
President Putin outside Kremlin
President Putin has put energy security at the top of the G8 agenda

This year world leaders will be gathering in St Petersburg, Russia for their annual summit from 15-17 July. The meeting is likely to be more acrimonious than usual, with energy security, democracy, and tensions in the Middle East high on the agenda.

What is the G8?

The G8 is an informal grouping of the world's seven richest industrial countries - the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada - whose leaders have been meeting regularly since 1975 in an annual summit to discuss problems in the world economy - plus Russia, which joined more recently.

The summits initially focused on economic problems, such as the oil crisis, but more recently the agenda has broadened out to include development, environment, and global security issues.

The group of eight countries make up more than half of the total world economy.

The group was originally known as the G7.

In 1991, following the collapse of communism, Russia was admitted as an observer to the meetings; in 1994 it became a formal member of the non-economic part of the summit, and in 1998 it became a full member of the G8.

This is the first time Russia has hosted a G8 summit meeting.

What are the key issues which will be discussed?

The summits began when the world was facing the first oil crisis which had pushed the world into recession, and this year there will again be talk of managing the global recovery and driving forward a free-trade agenda. However, the annual summit has evolved over the years to include other topics such as the environment, money laundering, and global terrorism.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has said he wants the issue of energy security, for rich and poor nations, to be top of the agenda.

He says that world powers are duty bound to create a system that can protect future generations from conflict over energy supplies.

He also wants to focus on education as a means of preventing the spread of terrorism and xenophobia, and calling for a global response to the threat posed by diseases such as HIV-AIDS and bird flu.

But world tensions, particularly over events in the Gaza strip, and in relation to Iran's nuclear ambitions, are bound to occupy much of the discussion.

And some G8 members want to raise the issue of Russia's adherence to democracy and human rights at home.

Who will be attending?

The key leaders meeting at he summit will be France's President Jacques Chirac, Italy's PM Romano Prodi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and US President George W. Bush.

In addition, key leaders from some of the most important developing countries will attend the summit as observers, including China's President Hu Jintau, Indian PM Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, and Thabo Mbeki, South African president.

Other officials attending including UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the heads of key UN agencies covering health (WHO), energy (IEA and IAEA), and education (UNESCO).

What about the promises made at the last G8 Gleneagles summit?

The summit will also review the promises made last year by world leaders at the Gleneagles summit in Scotland.

Tony Blair has already said he will set up an international commission to evaluate progress in regard to boosting development in Africa.

The key area in which there has been little progress is trade, where the world trade talks are stalled after several key deadlines have been missed.

There is talk that the head of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy, will travel to Moscow to try and make progress on the sidelines of the summit.

But meanwhile Russia, which is not a member of the WTO, is embroiled in a fierce dispute of its own with the US over the terms of its entry into the trade organisation.

Should Russia be part of the G8?

Russia wants to showcase the fact that it is now a modern, advanced industrial nation, and also to make the most of the fact it is the world's second biggest exporter of oil after Saudi Arabia, and has the world's largest reserves of gas.

However, Moscow's recent dispute with Ukraine over gas supplies, which affected deliveries to Europe, has already led some to question Russia's reliability as an energy supplier.

Others have questioned whether Russia should be chairing the G8 group of industrialised democracies at all.

They say Russia's economy is far smaller than any of the other members, and under Mr Putin democratic development in Russia has stalled.

Russia agues that if there are some failings in relation to human rights and democracy, other G8 members also have similar faults.

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