Geneva: Russia’s longstanding aim of joining the World Trade Organisation has been thrown into doubt as the conflict with Georgia and tensions with the West threaten to reshape the geopolitical order.
Moscow has been knocking at the door of the Geneva-based body since 1993, just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and during the first flush of the country’s embrace with capitalism.
Now it is the only major world trading power outside the bloc and has seen its former Soviet satellites such as Georgia and Ukraine steal a march and join the organisation in 2000 and 2008, respectively.
Diplomats speculate that the conflict with Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia could sound the final death knell for any hopes of membership.
Even before this month’s outbreak of hostilities, Georgia had voiced objections to Russian membership in 2006 after Moscow placed heavy restrictions on imports of Georgian goods such as wine and mineral water.
Not only does Georgia, as a WTO member, effectively hold a veto over Russia’s admission - all such decisions must be unanimously agreed by all 153 member states - but Russia itself has hardened its attitude, with powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin questioning whether membership is even worth it at all.
“It turns out that we don’t see or feel any pluses from membership and if there are some, we still carry a burden,” Putin said on Monday.
Russia also signalled it would cut imports of pork and chicken meat, which were agreed three years ago as part of its negotiations to join the WTO, because it believes the deals to be unfair.
Kremlin ministers have also complained that they have been “cheated” because the negotiations have dragged on for so long.
Nevertheless, Russian trade officials in Geneva were adamant that they still intend to join the organisation.
Even Putin said withdrawing from some agreements did not mean breaking off talks altogether.
Whilst Russia remains outside the organisation, many member states such as the United States and EU have already signed bilateral trade deals.
The EU on Thursday urged Moscow to speed up the accession process but stressed that it still has objections of its own that must be overcome.
Talks with the European Union have been held up largely over a dispute over export duties on Russian wood, which is a major raw material for paper and wood products makers in Finland.
Meanwhile the United States warned that Russia’s recent actions, both militarily and on the trade front, risked jeopardising its integration into the international trading system.