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Georgia, Saudi Arabia only obstacles to Russian WTO membership

By Christina Tashkevich
Tuesday, April 29
Russia officials say they are nearing World Trade Organization membership, but the Georgian government says it will not make concessions in negotiations on allowing Russian entry.

After an April 20 agreement between Russia and the United Arab Emirates, Georgia and Saudi Arabia are now the only states clearly withholding consent on Russian World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, which requires consensus from all current members.

The most recent round of membership negotiations between Georgian and Russian officials started in Geneva yesterday.

Georgia’s key demand is unchanged: Tbilisi wants Georgian border officers stationed at two border crossings with Russia which lie in separatist-controlled territory.

Before yesterday’s negotiations, Russian chief negotiator Maksim Medvedkov was optimistic, saying the last round of talks in February was productive.

“We moved ahead in looking for approaches to solve Georgian-raised issues, particularly on border checkpoints and trade issues between Georgia and Russia,” he told Russia news agency ITAR-TASS.

Georgian officials suggested in February that Russia was ready to move ahead with restoring Georgian control over the checkpoints, which the separatist administration fiercely oppose, but Moscow issued a statement emphasizing that no final agreement was reached.

Georgian acting foreign minister Davit Bakradze reiterated over the weekend that Georgia won’t consent to Russian WTO membership until Georgia has control over the two border checkpoints in secessionist Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

He also suggested that Russia’s recent move to bolster ties with the separatist regions, condemned by Tbilisi as “de facto annexation,” would be a roadblock for Russian accession to the WTO.

“When Russian makes steps to recognize illegal structures in the region, we need to review and to tighten our positions,” Bakradze told journalists.

Deputy Minister of Economic Development Tamar Kovziridze also confirmed that Georgia does not plan to shift position.

“We hope the next round of talks would be constructive and we would be able to come to an agreement on checkpoints,” Kovziridze told journalists.

Russia faced possible opposition to accession from Ukraine, which joins the WTO in May, but Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said yesterday that Ukraine is ready to help Russia to achieve WTO accession.

“Ukraine has become a WTO member, Russia will become a member soon and Ukraine would help it the best it can,” Tymoshenko said, according to Russian news reports.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said that as well as needing approval from Georgia and Saudi Arabia, Russia is still negotiating with the WTO on number of issues including sanitary measures and export taxes.

Rockwell could not comment on any progress made, but said Russia’s accession bid will take more time.

Russia has been trying to join the WTO for the last 13 years.