Georgia to Resume Talks with Moscow on Russian WTO Accession

9 March 2011

Georgia is set to return to the negotiating table with Russia over Moscow's efforts to join the WTO.  The talks will be held in the Swiss capital, Bern on 9-10 March.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nikoloz Vashakidze told reporters on Monday that the Russians requested the meeting.  "Russia officially initiated negotiations...The Georgian side was always stating its readiness for negotiations," he said.

Russia now hopes to join the global trade body by the end of 2011, and has made significant strides towards doing so over the past year, resolving bilateral issues with the EU and the US.  Yet the WTO's consensus-based decision-making procedures effectively give all existing members, including Georgia, which joined the WTO in 2000, a veto over Russian accession.

Georgia ceased WTO talks with Russia in 2008 amidst diplomatic tensions and a brief war over the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Tensions also remain over Russian embargoes against Georgian goods including wine, spirits, and mineral water dating back to 2006.

Georgian officials stressed that Tbilisi's position on Russian accession remains "unchanged" and movement forward would depend on Moscow's willingness to provide "transparency" at the border crossings in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has recognised the independence of the two enclaves and does not treat its borders with either as borders with Georgia, a policy that Tbilisi is seeking to change.

Manana Manjgaladze, a spokesperson for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, said that Georgia's list of concerns remained unchanged.  "First of all it concerns transparency on the border crossing points at Psou [Abkhazia] and Roki [South Ossetia] and securing access of the Georgian customs services to the Psou and Roki border crossing points. These proposals and position remain unchanged," she said on Tuesday, according to a report by the Civil Georgia news service.

In the past, Georgian trade diplomats have told Bridges that the accession process was one of few levers Georgia had to get Russia to respond to its concerns, since if Russia became a WTO member, formal dispute settlement - and the threat of retaliatory tariffs - would offer Tbilisi little leverage in getting Moscow to comply with its obligations. Many smaller WTO members complain that retaliatory tariffs would be mere pinpricks to larger economies (and self-damaging to boot).

However, according to Civil Georgia, a senior Georgian lawmaker said yesterday that the planned talks in Bern would not involve "substantive issues," focusing on drafting an agenda and schedule for further talks instead.

ICTSD reporting: "Georgia, Russia to resume WTO entry talks this week," REUTERS, 7 March 2011; "Georgia says position ‘unchanged' over Russia WTO entry," CIVIL GEORGIA, 9 March 2011; "Georgia to hold talks with Russia on WTO membership opposition," BLOOMBERG, 7 March 2011.

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