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Tbilisi and Moscow to begin talks on Russia’s WTO entry

By Mzia Kupunia
Tuesday, March 8
Tbilisi and Moscow are starting negotiations over Russia’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) accession, First Deputy Georgian Foreign Minister, Nikoloz Vashakidze announced during yesterday’s press briefing. He added that the Georgian delegation, headed by advisor to the Prime Minister, Tamar Kovziridze will hold talks with Russia in Bern on March 9 or 10.

According to Vashakidze, the initiative for starting negotiations belongs to Russia. “You know that the Georgian side has always expressed its readiness to get involved in talks, however we do not think it is appropriate to speak about the details of the negotiations in advance,” he commented. The Georgian Prime Minister’s office has declined from making any comment ahead of the first round of talks with Moscow. Spokesperson for the Prime Minister, Niko Mchedlishvili said he is not authorised to make any comment as Prime Minister Gilauri is currently visiting the USA.

Information about Russia and Georgia launching talks over Russia’s WTO membership was first announced by President Obama’s special assistant and National Security Council’s senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs Michael McFaul. On March 4 he told journalists that the “process is underway” and that the US is not involved in the negotiations as it is a “bilateral issue, not a trilateral issue.” “Moscow understands, the negotiators understand that they have to deal with this issue seriously and it is not just something that they can wait for us to make the Georgians go along with, because we are not going to do that,” he said, adding, “At the same time I think the leadership in Tbilisi understands that they want to find a cooperative solution to this issue to deal specifically with the economic and trade issues that are involved here, and not to make it a bigger debate.”

A WTO member since June 2000, Georgia has the right to veto the entry of any new member to the organisation; meanwhile Russia has been trying to join since 1993. Georgian officials say that Tbilisi demands the “legalisation” of border crossing points at Roki and Psou in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. MP from the ruling party and Chairman of the International Relations Committee in the Georgian Parliament, Akaki Minashvili said Georgia has “specific economic demands towards WTO.” “The main demand of the organisation is transparent trade between states, so we demand that we have an opportunity to monitor what kind of goods enter and go out of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region,” the MP said, adding that the mechanism for controlling these borders, including the possibility of deploying Georgian border guards, is a subject for negotiation.

Georgian opposition figures have recommended Tbilisi take a “maximally principled” stand during the Russian-Georgian negotiations. “Considering the level of confrontation between the two countries, I understand that it is very difficult to achieve the deployment of EU monitoring mission at the Russian-Georgian state border, at Psou and the Roki Tunnel in particular,” MP from the Christian-Democratic Movement Giorgi Targamadze said. “I think that the Georgia’s position should be principled and our attitudes should be backed by international law and precedents,” he noted, adding that Russia and Georgia will “definitely” be able to find common interests, if the political elite of the two countries manage to outline the issues of strategic importance for Tbilisi and Moscow.

Some Georgian analysts have expressed doubts about the possibility of reaching any concrete results during the first round of talks. Analyst in economic issues, Nodar Khaduri suggested that during the first round Russia is unlikely to agree on legalising the Psou and Roki crossings. “I do not think that the first meeting will be very fruitful for Russia; however I think that the ice is beginning to melt,” Khaduri said, adding that “anyway Russia will become a WTO member somehow.” “So it is better for Georgia to get maximum benefit by Russia’s becoming a member of the WTO.”

Meanwhile analyst Levan Kalandadze suggested that by initiating the start of negotiations, Russia has expressed its readiness for concessions. “It is important that the initiator of the talks is Russia. It indicates that Moscow is ready to work on certain conditions. Possibly, a decision has already been taken in the Russian economic group and political elite on making some concession towards Georgia,” he said, noting that for Georgia, as well as for Europe, Russia’s WTO membership is important in order to make Moscow “more controllable.”