Russia knock, knock, knocking on WTO’s door

After 17 years of tough negotiations, Russia may finally get membership in the World Trade Organization
For 17 years, Russia has been in membership talks with the 153-nation World Trade Organization, and remains the only major economy still outside the organization. Moscow now says everything will be sorted out before the end of summer.

­All of the remaining issues involving Russia's long-awaited accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) will be sorted out before the end of summer, Russia's EU Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov told Interfax.

"Questions that have yet to be resolved, matters on which we need to reach an agreement in a multilateral format can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” Chizhov said. “All of the bilateral agreements with the EU and the United States were achieved a long time ago.”

The EU ambassador added that both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have said on numerous occasions that they hope all the issues related to Russia joining the international organization will be sorted out within the next few weeks. In any case before the end of summer.

The European Union gave its formal support to Russia’s WTO entry bid in December after Moscow agreed to trim timber export duties and rail freight tariffs. It has also been reported that the largest exporters of meat to Russia declared their support for Russia’s WTO membership.

Citing estimates of the World Bank, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin said, "The overall long-term effect of Russia's participation in the WTO will be [annual economic growth of] over 14 per cent."

Kudrin, speaking at the spring session of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the middle of April, confirmed Russia’s adherence to economic liberalization.

"The World Bank thinks that Russia won't gain much from its broader presence on the international market,” he said. “In the medium-term prospect our share will be less than 1 per cent. However, investments will grow by over 11 per cent.”

As for technical aspects of the accession, he said Russia was prepared to fulfill its end of the agreements with the United States and Europe as soon as the formalities were complete.

"There is no need to do any extra work," Kudrin remarked.

The WTO was established on January 1, 1995 as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which had been operating since 1947. It serves as the only international body that supervises world trade. The WTO, which is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, enjoys the status of a UN specialized agency.  

While the prospects for Russia’s entry into the WTO appear rather high, there remains one nagging factor that could potentially derail the entire process: Georgia.

Russia’s Georgian blues

There has been much speculation as to how Georgia, which belongs to the 153-member organization, could ultimately scuttle Russia’s goal of WTO membership.

Vladimir Chizhov downplayed those fears.

"Georgia's claims against Russia have nothing to do with the WTO directly, which by the way Georgians themselves have admitted,” he said. “I do not think that it should create any obstacles for a decision on Russia's accession to the WTO.”

Meanwhile, the latest round of talks between Tbilisi and Moscow on Russia’s accession to the WTO, scheduled for June 2, was postponed.

The talks "were put off at the request of Switzerland," a government source was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying, adding that no date for the next discussions has been announced.

Switzerland serves a mediator in discussions between Russia and Georgia after the two nations broke diplomatic relations following a five-day military conflict in August 2008. The last round of the Russian-Georgian talks took place in Bern in late April.

VP Joe Biden meets Medvedev in Rome

President Dmitry Medvedev met with US Vice President Joe Biden and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi while visiting Rome this week. The three-way lunch meeting came just a week after President Barack Obama met Medvedev in France during the G8 Summit, a meeting that saw Russia acknowledge the risk of“an arms race by 2020 without an agreement on missile defense co-operation.”

The parties discussed the situation in the Middle East and Libya, Medvedev's spokeswoman said. Other issues raised at the meeting were the European missile defense plan and Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), the spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, told reporters. The meeting was "a serious exchange of opinions in the spirit of the discussions at the G8 summit in Deauville," Timakova said.

Biden also met with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili during his trip to Italy, the official purpose of which is to take part in the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy on June 2.

All key issues relating to Georgia were raised at the meeting, the secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, Giga Bokeria, told reporters. They included Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization and Georgia's position on this subject.

"I wouldn't like to go into details about that meeting, which was very fruitful," Bokeria said.

Georgian television only aired the start of the meeting, during which Saakashvili told Biden that "5 Days of August," a Hollywood film by the Finnish director Renny Harlin that deals with the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008, would have its premiere showing in Tbilisi "within days."

Saakashvili seemed proud of the fact that his role is played by Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia. In response, Biden said jokingly that he hoped another talented actor plays the part of today's American vice president.

Russia could in theory be admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) without Georgia's consent, but that would be unprecedented, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze said in March.

Her comments came in response to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's remarks that Russia could become a WTO member without Georgia's approval.

"Such a possibility does exist. This is stipulated under the WTO statute whereby any state may become a member of the Organization in circumvention of one [member] country. But there has not been such a precedent so far," she said.

Georgia's position on Russia's WTO membership was constructive and non-political, Kalandadze said.

"We are talking about purely technical and legal matters," she said.

Tbilisi severed diplomatic relations with Russia in August 2008 when Moscow recognized the independence of two former Georgian republics following a five-day war, which started when Georgia attacked South Ossetia in an attempt to bring it back under central control.

Russia's entry into the WTO will be discussed at a Russia-European Union summit in Nizhny Novgorod on June 9-10.

Robert Bridge, RT