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Russia Continues Drive for WTO Membership

The Geneva-based World Trade Organization, WTO, recently accepted Ukraine as a new member. This leaves Iran and Russia as the two largest countries outside the WTO. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at Moscow's membership bid.

The World Trade Organization, WTO, is the agency overseeing the rules of international trade. It was founded in 1995, replacing an organization known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

David Hartridge is a former official at the WTO. He says in addition to providing the legal framework for the conduct of almost all world trade, the WTO plays another very important role.

"It provides an extremely efficient disputes settlement system in which disagreements which arise between governments - and they very often do because trade is a difficult and contentious area - they provide a means by which these differences can be settled peacefully, legally, without resort to big power politics," he noted. "So it's extremely valuable to the world that we can settle even the most difficult disputes between governments about trade without resort to retaliation and other measures that merely damage everybody."

Hartridge says to become a WTO member, a country has to accept a whole series of agreements. They include a ceiling on tariff levels governments can impose on various goods and another dealing with the protection of intellectual property. A country also has to change many of its economic and trade laws to make them conform to international standards.

That is why, experts say, it took Ukraine more than 14 years of negotiations before it became the latest member of the World Trade Organization.

Russia began its membership drive at the same time as Ukraine, but Hartridge says there are still a number of stumbling blocs to Russia's accession.

"One of the main ones which I thinks is still outstanding is Russian agricultural policy, the system of subsidies to agricultural production," he explained. "Another major problem still outstanding is the system for the protection of intellectual property rights. That's a special concern of the U.S.A. which wants to be sure that intellectual property rights will be properly protected in Russia before it accedes."

Experts say relations between Russia and Ukraine are not good. Over the years Moscow has tried to use its economic leverage on Kyiv, briefly cutting off gas supplies in a pricing dispute. And in 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to influence the outcome of Ukraine's presidential elections. But despite the bad relations, Ukraine has indicated it will not block Russia's membership bid to the World Trade Organization.

David Marples from the University of Alberta says it is not in Ukraine's interest to thwart Moscow's drive.

"Because if they were both members, the key areas of dispute right now which are mainly exports of gas and oil from Russia to Ukraine and pipelines through Ukraine to Europe, could be resolved within the administrative structures of the WTO, rather than bilaterally," he said.

Adrian Sliwotzky, a Ukraine expert at the Oliver Weiman consulting firm, agrees.

"Russian entry into the WTO will cause both countries, Russia and Ukraine, to be subject to many of the regulatory mechanisms and dispute resolution mechanisms which I think will be a plus for both countries," he noted. "There is very, very significant trade between the two countries and I think with the addition of those much more objective mechanisms for regulating relationships in trade, there are very good chances that trade will not only grow, but intensify as both have to play by a common set of rules that have been developed and well tested over time."

Russian entry into the World Trade Organization has been one of the main goals of Vladimir Putin's eight-year presidency. However, Mr. Putin leaves office in May without having achieved that objective. It is now up to his successor Dmitri Medvedev to make sure all the remaining issues are resolved allowing Russia to join the world body in the very near future.