Customs Union to make the case for WTO accession

Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have formed a single negotiating group to gain accession to the World Trade Organisation. But the newly-formed "Customs Union" may face obstacles.

After 16 years of talks and coming 95% of the way towards WTO membership, Russia changed its priorities.

In June Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared that Russia would now seek entry to the Trade group as part of the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. It was a shock to experts worldwide, with Aleksey Portnyansky, Director of the Office on Russia’s Accession to the WTO saying the customs union being created will be a first for the world body.

“We’ve seen customs territories joining the WTO, but the bid by the customs union has no precedent. Under WTO rules it can be joined either by a country or by a customs territory which has the full autonomy in its foreign trade. The customs union which is being created now doesn’t have such independence.”

The creation of the Customs Union is a top economic priority for Russia. Analysts say it will help Russia become a regional centre and strengthen its economic and political influence.

But First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, says the Customs Union states have formed a single negotiating team.

“Our priority is that Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan enter the WTO at the same time and on the same terms. If the sides are forced to accept any other decision, we will be ready for them, but these decisions need to be coordinated with country leaders. We are proceeding from the idea that the strategic goal is that all three countries become members of the WTO.”

Igor Shuvalov says in case of legal difficulties the parties will hold bilateral talks. Another challenge for the Union will be to synchronize Kazakh and Belorussian economic laws with those of Russia which already comply to a high level with those of the EU.

Experts say that the joint accession is possible, but it may make it more complicated for Russia to join the World Trade Organisation. The first round of talks between the Customs Union and the WTO is due to start in September.