Monday, June 11, 2018

Russian WTO Membership? Don't be Ridiculous

For reasons still unclear to me, my formative years were permanently scarred by relatives watching the US sitcom Perfect Strangers. This show's signature character was Bronson Pinchot playing "Cousin Balki Bartokomous," a shepherd from the fictional Mediterrenean island nation of Mypos transplanted to the mean streets of Chicago. Every five minutes or so, he'd deploy his signature line in a thick accent of unknown origin: "Well of course not. Don't be ridiculous!"

That, my friends, is my same exact response to the question of Russia joining the WTO. Instead of Balki, we have several WTO member countries, ah, balking at Russia's intent. A few weeks ago, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev again expressed wariness over the endless process of WTO accession. From RIA Novosti:

President Dmitry Medvedev said Saturday that Russia would like to join the World Trade Organization but added that the process of joining it should not be endless. Russia has been negotiating its entry into the global trade body for more than 15 years.

"Our position on joining the WTO is the same, it has not changed and it is the following: the Russian Federation is ready to join on normal, nondiscriminatory conditions. We have done all that is necessary. This process has been drawn out, and this irritates us," Medvedev told journalists. "The key thing is that this [process] does not turn into an endless story," he said after talks in Moscow with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who reaffirmed Chile's support for Russia's membership of the WTO...

Russia has finished the necessary bilateral negotiations with 60 interested countries, but has not coordinated a number of positions of principle, including on agriculture, on export duties for timber, and on regulation of the activities of some state companies.
A true international trade aficionado (with lots of free time) should welcome reading more about the proceedings on Russian accession at the WTO website. As I have said in the past, the main obstacle to Russian WTO accession that will probably terminally hinder its prospects unless somehow resolved is the earlier accession of Ukraine and Georgia [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]--countries which now resent their former master's pretensions to continued regional dominance. Since WTO membership will require that all other member countries approve of Russia's bid, do not count on Ukraine and Georgia signing on without major, major concessions.

I often feel like giving Medvedev and Vladmir Putin a Russian language translation of Dale Carnegie's classic work How to Win Friends and Influence People. As long as it wasn't translated by a bloke at the US State Department, it should work a treat. Then again, attempting to gain WTO membership after cutting off gas supplies to your neighbor during the dead of winter (Ukraine) or encouraging secession of breakaway republics that have resulted in deadly border skirmishes (Georgia) don't seem like particularly neighborly moves to me in terms of winning over key WTO parties.

So, it is of interest that Russia is once again drumming up talk of accession:
Russia expects many issues related to talks on accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) tobe resolved by July, Deputy Russian Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin told reporters in Washington on Sunday. "We're not talking about reaching all understandings once and for all, but about meaningful progress," he said.

Russia and the United States are planning a series of further meetings and measures aimed at stepping up efforts to get Russia into the WTO, and to enable some sort of agreements to be reached when their presidents meet in July. For example, areas where problems exist should be identified and a schedule of work related to this be drawn up.

Kudrin said the goal of rounding off WTO accession talks by the end of this year was still on the agenda. "We would of course like to round off all accession talks by the end of the year," he said. Kudrin said he discussed Russia's accession to the WTO and waiving the Jackson-Vanik amendment during meetings with representatives of the Obama administration. "We got assurances of their support and desire to overcome all disagreements in the foreseeable future," he said.
Recall that Jackson-Vanik pertains to the extension of US trade agreements with reference to emigration and human rights most famously invoked against China during those awkward years between the Tiananmen Massacre and its WTO accession. Overall, I believe that gaining US assent is a secondary consideration to soothing tempers of understandable aggrieved neighbors. Even America won't calm them down. "Cousin Balki Bartokomous" would understand.

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