EU Pushes Georgia to Let Russia Join WTO

2011-10-26 10:30:44

The European Union is stepping up pressure on Georgia to accept Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization in an attempt to improve relations with Moscow, say people familiar with the matter.

After 18 years, Russia is finally close to joining the Geneva-based body, where it is the only major economy outside. Moscow has completed the brunt of the technical and legal work, and obtained support from the U.S. and the EU.

The key hurdle remaining: a veto threat from Georgia, Russia's enemy since a 2008 war over two pro-Russian territories inside Georgia. Russia won.

WTO rules require unanimous consent among its 153 members to welcome in a new member. That gives Georgia, a nation of 4.6 million, a rare stick of leverage against its colossal neighbor.

Georgia is demanding that Russia cede its control over, and allow international monitors to track trade in the two territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia, which has thousands of troops in the territories and now controls their borders, has agreed only to share some trade information. Talks between Russia and Georgia, mediated by Swiss diplomats, are continuing in Geneva.

A vote is scheduled for Dec. 15 in Geneva, when WTO trade ministers gather for their first full-fledged summit since December 2009.

On Tuesday, Gunnar Wiegand, who works for EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton as the EU's top diplomat for Russia and central Asia, met with senior Georgian officials in Tbilisi, their capital. He delivered a blunt message, said two people in Tbilisi familiar with the talks: Georgia needs to agree quickly to Russian accession.

If not, Mr. Wiegand told them, the EU would be open to putting on the table an exemption to WTO rules allowing a straight-up majority vote on Dec. 15, which would allow Russia to get in without Georgia's approval, a huge loss of face for Georgia. U.S. officials declined to comment on the idea.

A WTO panel could theoretically vote to make an exception to allow a majority vote rather than an anonymous vote.

The EU is now making formal plans for Russia to join the WTO between March and June. Mr. Wiegand declined to comment.

Both EU and U.S. officials say they want Russia inside the WTO—whose members pledge to lower tariffs and trade barriers—to eliminate the headaches that currently characterize trade with Russia. "So many [trade problems] will be resolved immediately upon accession," said Nikolay Mizulin, a trade lawyer for Chicago-based Mayer Brown LLP.

The West also needs the foreign-policy boost following an uneasy time with Russia, said Katynka Barysch, an analyst with the London-based Centre for European Reform and author of a recent paper on Russian foreign policy.

The EU and Russia have a wide-ranging partnership agreement that can't be concluded until Russia joins the WTO, and Washington has been trying to improve relations with Moscow. "The EU-Russia relationship is completely stuck, and the Americans are looking for something to continue the goodwill created by the [Obama's administration's] reset," Ms. Barysch said.

Further, Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, has seemed almost insulted at the West's initial insistence it would not pressure Tbilisi. "Do our main partners in Europe and the States want Russia to be a member of the WTO or not?" he asked this month. "There's no need to hide behind the Georgian question."

Officially, EU and U.S. officials insist they are sticking to the neutral position Mr. Putin was complaining about.

"We're an honest broker in these talks," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said last week, according to wire reports. Putting pressure on Georgia "is not a policy approach that we are pursuing," said Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for Ms. Ashton, the EU foreign-policy chief.


The Wall Street Journal