|Russian negotiator says trade deal reached with Georgia, paving way for WTO membership|
|November 03, 2011|
By Frank Jordans
GENEVA - Russia has reached an agreement with Georgia that paves the way for Moscow to join the World Trade Organization after an 18-year wait, a senior Russian trade negotiator said Wednesday.
The dispute over how to handle Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was the last big hurdle preventing Russia from joining the WTO. Russia is the only major economy still outside the global trade body.
"We have reached agreement in respect of a draft bilateral arrangement which was necessary in order to get Georgia's approval to our accession," Russia's top WTO negotiator, Maxim Medvedkov, told The Associated Press.
Under WTO practice, decisions are made by consensus, meaning Tbilisi effectively had a veto over Russia's membership until now.
Medvedkov said the deal follows a proposal by Switzerland, which has mediated between Russia and Georgia since their brief war over the separatist provinces in 2008.
The agreement foresees that a neutral company will conduct customs checks on all trade between the two nations.
"It will cover our trade which goes from Russia to Georgia directly," Medvedkov said. "It will cover also trade which goes from Russia to Georgia and vice versa through Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And also trade which leaves Russian customs territory but is not coming to Georgian customs territory."
In addition, an independent company will audit data on trade between the countries, he said.
Georgia accepted the Swiss proposal last week, leaving only minor issues to be resolved by diplomats meeting in Geneva next week.
Both the European Union and the U.S. have voiced hope that Moscow could join the WTO by the year's end.
An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that Washington was pleased with the progress made so far and remained confident that Russia would formally be invited to join the WTO at a meeting of trade ministers in December.
The accession of oil-rich Russia would boost the 153-member body, which has struggled for years to agree on a new global free trade deal.
"The WTO is really in need of some positive news," said Joost Pauwelyn, a professor of international law at Geneva's Graduate Institute and a former WTO lawyer. "I don't think they will have much (else) to announce at the ministerial in December, so if they could announce that Russia is finally joining the WTO after 18 years of negotiations the WTO would be quite keen on that."
WTO chief Pascal Lamy told France-Inter radio on Wednesday that Russia was on track to join by the end of the year.
"We're very close to the goal," he said, adding that a deal would be "important news for global economy and for Russia."
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