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Russia Continues Drive for Membership in WTO

The United States strongly supports Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, or WTO, international agency overseeing the rules of international trade. It was founded in 1995, replacing an organization known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

"The World Trade Organization is a set of agreements governing nearly all aspects of international trade in goods and services and also extending to the treatment of intellectual property and enforcement of intellectual property rights. In addition, it is an organization located in Geneva that enforces or helps enforce and oversee the workings of these agreements. It comprises now 153 different nation states. The largest economies that are outside the WTO are Russia and Iran," said David Christy, a trade expert with the law firm of DLA Piper here in Washington.

Anders Aslund, a Russia and trade expert with the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, says the criteria for joining the WTO are extensive. "The WTO is a club and first you have to accept all the rules. Then you have to settle with each member who so desires bilateral market access protocols. That's a lot of negotiation. And the other countries, they look at what rules in your country are not good enough for the WTO, so that they have to change. Russia has changed at least 100 laws or adopted new customs codes, etc. in order to become eligible for membership in the WTO," he said.

Russia officially began its WTO membership bid in 1993. Aslund says Russia's negotiating history has been uneven. "Until 2000, Russia didn't take its application very seriously; it didn't work hard on it. You can say that Russia worked hard on it the years 2000 to 20003. And during his second term, President Vladimir Putin sort of lost interest in the WTO and didn't do very much to push it," he said.

Experts say Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has been pushing very hard for WTO membership and has moved his country closer to that goal.

Robert Legvold of Columbia University in New York says Mr. Medvedev did not get much help from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "We had this complication that began last summer when we thought we were very close to having done the deal; most of Medvedev's people were talking about it being almost a done deal. And then suddenly, in the early part of June 2009, Prime Minister Putin said, 'We are not coming in except as part of a customs union among Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.' And that threw a complete monkey wrench into things and delayed it another eight or nine months until January or February of this year, when that roadblock seemed to be removed," he said.

Many experts say Russia has never been closer to becoming a member of the World Trade Organization. But some outstanding issues include limits on agricultural subsidies, encryption of smart phones and intellectual property rights, focusing on curbing illicit trade and counterfeiting in goods.

During last month's Washington summit, President Barack Obama told President Medvedev that the United States is firmly behind Russia's WTO bid. "I emphasized to President Medvedev, I emphasized to his entire delegation, and now I want to emphasize to the Russian people, we think it is not only in the interests of the Russian Federation, but [also] in the interests of the United States and in the interest of the world that Russia joins the WTO. So this is something that we want to get resolved," he said.

President Medvedev said only minor technical problems remain and he expressed the hope that they will be resolved by the end of September. But some experts say that timeframe might just be too optimistic.