Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Iran, NGO Issues May Complicate Russia’s Entry to WTO

Visiting U.S. senators have said Russia’s record on democracy and the Kremlin’s stance on the Iranian nuclear crisis would influence the U.S. Congress, as it considers Moscow’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Associated Press reported. READ MORE

Progress being made in reversing anti-democratic trends and perceptions as to progress being made in Iran do color the positions of the U.S. Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who led a group of senators on a trip to Russia, said at a news conference.

Frist and others said that Russia and the U.S. needed to tackle differences on the enforcement of intellectual property rights and opening Russian markets, but they also emphasized that progress in the political field would help create a positive attitude toward Moscow’s WTO bid among congressmen.

“Russia’s positions on issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and trends in democracy promotion — issues such as freedom of the press, expression by NGOs — will affect how Congress handles the lifting of the current Jackson-Vanik restrictions,” Frist said in a reference to the Soviet-era trade restrictions, the lifting of which is important for opening the way for Russia to join the WTO.

Russia has resisted a U.S. push for international sanctions against Iran, an important economic partner. The Kremlin also has faced strong Western criticism for backtracking on democracy — an accusation it has denied.

Frist said that congress would carefully watch the implementation of a Kremlin-initiated law that imposes new restrictions on non-governmental organizations.

“The NGO law is of particular concern,” Frist said. “Anything that strikes down or constrains or restricts full NGO participation ... is something that would be discouraging to us.”

Among economic issues, the U.S. urged Russia to make stronger anti-piracy efforts, offer American companies broader access to its insurance and financial markets and remove some agricultural barriers.

“There are issues which need to be resolved to show that the economy is mature and that the approach to the rule of law is mature,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg.

Russia, whose export-oriented industries stand to profit handsomely from the freer access to Western markets that WTO membership would bring, has been negotiating to join the 149-member global commerce body since 1994.

It has had to embark on a major set of legislative reforms to fall into line with WTO rules, including introducing a new customs code. Russia has signed agreements with the European Union, China and Japan, but has yet to reach deals with the U.S., Colombia and Australia.

Under WTO rules, each member has the right to seek their own trade deal with a candidate before approving that candidate’s membership. The bilateral deals negotiated by individual members are eventually consolidated so that all members trade with the new member on the same conditions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last month accused the United States of making unwarranted demands that set back Moscow’s WTO bid.