Russia’s 18-Year WTO Quest Nears End as Georgia Backs Swiss Plan

Russia’s 18-year quest to join the World Trade Organization moved closer to fulfillment yesterday after Georgia agreed to a Swiss proposal for a compromise between the two governments.

Russia, the largest major economy that’s not a member of the organization that sets global trade rules, will need “several days to give an answer” to the plan, Maxim Medvedkov, the country’s chief negotiator, said in a telephone interview from Geneva today. Georgia and Russia resolved “nearly all remaining differences” at their latest round of talks, the WTO said in an e-mailed statement.

Russia’s road to the WTO stretches back to 1993, exceeding China’s 15-year wait. Georgia is the final member yet to give its approval after the European Union backed Russia’s bid this week. The two countries fought a five-day war in 2008 and ties soured further after Russia recognized the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

“The Russian Federation can become a member of the WTO provided that it also agrees to the proposal,” the Georgian government said in an e-mailed statement, adding that the country is “fully aware that these talks were not the appropriate forum to reverse the ongoing illegal occupation of 20 percent of the Georgian territory by the Russian military.”

Go-Ahead for December

The WTO’s working party on Russia’s accession will meet Nov. 10-11 and may recommend giving the go-ahead for it to join at a Ministerial Conference of members in December, the party’s chairman, Stefan Johannesson, said today by e-mail.

“I have sent to members today the negotiating documents that reflect the last stages of our work on the Russian accession,” Johannesson said. “WTO members strongly supported these recommended next steps.”

Russia is seeking to overcome Georgia’s “political” objections to its entry and the two countries are still in talks, Deputy Economy Minister Andrei Slepnyov told reporters today in Moscow.

The EU last week backed Russia’s bid to join the WTO, saying on Oct. 21 entry this year for the world’s largest energy producer remains possible.

“We have struck a deal on the final outstanding bilateral issues, leaving the way open for Russia to join the WTO by the end of this year,” EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said in an e-mailed statement.

Strong U.S. Support

The Obama administration said last year it had resolved most issues necessary for Russia to enter the WTO. The U.S. now “strongly supports” the bid, Vice President Joseph Biden said during a trip to Moscow in March.

The U.S. and Europe shouldn’t “hide behind” Georgia in delaying Russia’s WTO entry, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seeking to return to the presidency next year, said Oct. 6.

“Everyone, including our partners in the WTO accession process, should understand that this isn’t just in Russia’s interests,” President Dmitry Medvedev said this week. “It’s in the interests of various businesses, foreign business, and generally in the interest of properly regulated international trade.”

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