Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Aiming for WTO Membership by End of Year

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin participate in a video conference with regional offices of the United Russia party, at the party's headquarters, Moscow, October 21, 2011.

Russia has been trying to join the World Trade Organization since 1993. Now Russian officials are saying they hope to become a member by the end of this year.

The 153-member 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).

Experts say to become a WTO member is a complex procedure. First, a country has to accept a whole series of agreements. They include a ceiling on tariff levels governments can impose on various imported goods and another dealing with the protection of intellectual property. In addition to accepting all the WTO rules, a country then has to settle bilateral trade agreements with all the countries that so desire. And finally, a country has to change many of its economic and trade laws to make them conform to international standards.

The last country to join the Geneva-based WTO was Ukraine in 2008. Russia has been negotiating for 18 years.

David Christy, a lawyer [with the firm Thompson Hine] and trade expert who has helped governments with their WTO bids, says a country that wants to join and is serious in meeting WTO requirements can become a member within three to four years.

"When a country like Russia or China joins, it generally takes longer because the economy is so much more complex, but also because they are negotiating hard to minimize the obligations that they will be forced to undertake," said Christy. "And Russia was willing to put off its accession in order to ensure that the package of obligations it eventually accepts is as light as possible. And in that regard, kudos to them and their negotiators - I think they have done an excellent job. They have an exceedingly forceful negotiating style that tends to wear down other delegations. And so they are willing to keep the negotiating process going for year, after year, after year," Christy added.

Anders Aslund, a Russia expert with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is a forceful advocate of Russia's WTO accession.

"He has been pushing it and substantial progress has been made in the last two years," said Aslund. "And the other period when there was substantial progress was the years 2000 to 2003 - President [Vladimir] Putin's first term. But in between, say between 2003 and 2010, very little progress was made."

Experts say one major obstacle remains to Russia's WTO membership and that is Georgia's opposition to it. Under WTO rules, any member can block a new country from joining simply by vetoing it, because the organization operates by consensus.

Georgia has always strongly opposed Russia's support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow and Tbilisi fought a brief war over them in 2008. Russia now considers the two independent states, a status not accepted by the international community.

Anders Aslund says Georgia's opposition to Moscow's bid has to do with customs procedures between Russia and the two separatist regions.

"What the Georgians are demanding is that there is some kind of multilateral control over trade flows through these two territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And Russia has resisted it," Aslund noted.

David Christy says the real issue is that Russia is treating the breakaway regions as being completely separate from Georgia - which is strongly opposed by Tbilisi.

"So that trade, in Russia's view, would be flowing from Russia through South Ossetia [and Abkhazia] and then into Georgia," said Christy. "Whereas from Georgia's view, as soon as it crosses out of Russia, it's in Georgia as a matter of international law, even if Georgia doesn't fully control that territory."

The United States has backed Russia's entry into the WTO while at the same time saying it will not pressure Georgia to change its view. Experts are divided as to whether Russia will be able to resolve its differences with Georgia by the December 15-17 WTO ministerial meeting in Geneva.