Russia blazes WTO trail for Kazakhstan and Belarus

2011-11-11 11:44:49

Russia's negotiation to join the World Trade Organization, which it wrapped up on Thursday after 18 years, should turbo-charge the candidacy of its neighbours Kazakhstan and Belarus, a senior WTO official told Reuters.

That is because much of the text of Russia's membership agreement refers not to "Russia" but to the "CU", the Customs Union that the three countries set up in 2009, so Russia has effectively pre-cooked large chunks of Kazakhstan's and Belarus's negotiations.

By creating the union, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threw Russia's WTO bid into disarray, apparently willing to risk derailing its candidacy in favour of a revival of ties to former Soviet neighbours.

But after Russia's long struggle to clinch a WTO agreement, Putin's detour may end up paying dividends, since it could bring more countries into the global trading system on Russia's coat-tails.

"Basically what these two other governments were doing is that they went into a holding position to wait for the Russian Federation accession to be completed, because obviously that will be the benchmark for running the other accessions," said Chiedu Osakwe, director of the accessions division of the WTO.

"The conclusion of the terms of accession for the Russian Federation should ... have a positive effect, including on speed for the accessions of Belarus and Kazakhstan," he added.

"One aspect of the accession will be the goods schedule, so now we know that that is done, basically, for the three of them, because they will accede on the basis of a common goods schedule."

The second part, about trade in services, was not part of the CU, and so each country has to negotiate separately. Kazakhstan's negotiation was virtually complete but Belarus had yet to get its negotiation underway, he said.

"When we get to the last chunk, and that is the multilateral part of it, there is a huge part of it which is constituted by the Customs Union," Osakwe said.

"In the final analysis there will be political decisions that will be taken by the government in Minsk and Astana regarding how quickly they want to move on this.

"But my expectation and what is eminently rational to me is that they would now like to move in lockstep with the Russian Federation.

"And the reason is that if you look at the (WTO) Working Party report of the Russian Federation, the first part deals with a 'framework' for making and enforcing policies. It binds all three of them. So now it's almost impossible to envisage that any one of these three governments economically can go their own separate way."

Russia's WTO negotiator Maxim Medvedkov earlier said Russia was keen to see its ex-Soviet neighbours follow its lead.

"Of course we would like to see our Customs Union partners Kazakhstan and Belarus in the WTO as soon as possible. I'm absolutely sure that our accession will substantially help those members to accelerate their process," he said.

Even more countries might be in line to benefit from Russia's negotiations since Putin, who is widely expected to return to the presidency in March next year, wants to expand the Customs Union to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Asked if Kazakhstan could reach an agreement on joining the WTO as soon as next year, Osakwe said it was always hazardous to make predictions but that timeline was "eminently feasible".

"But never forget that in all this technical work there's a mixture with politics and domestic politics. That coefficient, one can never fully quantify. So my answer is a technical one: it's eminently feasible. But will it be done in reality? We'll have to wait and see how politics intersects with the technical work."