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U.S. Official on Russia-Georgia WTO Talks
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 19 Apr.'11 / 02:14

There might be “a creative solution” to Russia-Georgia WTO-related dispute by providing transparency of border crossing points in the breakaway regions without putting there Georgian customs officials, a senior White House official said on April 15.

Georgian and Russian negotiators are expected to meet for a next round of Swiss-mediated talks in Bern on April 28-29, it was reported on Monday.

After their meeting in March – the first one since the August, 2008 war – Russia accused Georgia of “politicizing” WTO talks by demanding to put its customs officials on the border crossing points on the Russian border in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia said it was not mixing political issues with the trade while dealing with Russia’s WTO entry terms and that its demands were related with trade and the need for transparent movement of goods across the border.

Speaking at the Washington-based think-tank, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Michael McFaul, the U.S. President’s special assistant and National Security Council’s senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs, said that although the U.S. was not a mediator, it actively facilitated contacts between Tbilisi and Moscow over WTO-related issues. He even said that President Obama “himself was personally involved in setting that up.”

He said that it was in the national interests of the United States to get Russia into WTO, calling it “a top priority” in bilateral relations.

A study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics estimated U.S. goods exports to Russia could double to USD 19 billion after Russia joins WTO. 

McFaul said that the U.S. would not “squeeze” Georgia over Russia’s WTO entry terms; he said Washington had been “categorically clear” about it with Russia.

“We also say to the Georgian government: this [WTO entry talks with Russia] is not a mechanism for you to resolve your political issues with Russia. We’ve been categorically clear to them on that,” McFaul said.

Asked if Washington would push Georgia to give its go-ahead to Russia’s WTO entry if Moscow allowed Georgian products back on its market, McFaul downplayed the problem of embargo and said that it would be resolved “at the end of the day.” “I am not worried about that,” he said.

“But there is this fundamental issue about border,” he said.

He said that it was “a very peculiar situation” that could not be ignored, wherein Georgia wanted to have information about the movement of goods in and out of its breakaway regions, including in direction of rest of Georgia.

“Whether it’s legitimate WTO issue or not, it’s an issue about economy,” he said.

“We think there is a creative solution to that – without having to put customs officials [in Abkhazia or South Ossetia on the border with Russia]... We think there is a way to increase transparency and information flows about what [goods] might be going across that border,” McFaul said. “By the way the Russian government says they are for the transparency; they want to increase transparency.”

Citing ongoing talks between Russia and Georgia, he declined to elaborate further into the details of this possible “creative solution”.

There have been suggestions in Tbilisi to offer Moscow “a compromise solution” involving deployment of EU monitors on the border with Russia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia – the solution modeled under the EU Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM). The Russian daily, Kommersant, however, reported in March, citing an unnamed high ranking official from the Russian Foreign Ministry, that this option was not realistic either.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister, Nino Kalandadze, said on April 19, that the U.S. would never mount any pressure on Georgia in order to speed up Russia’s WTO accession.

“We are well aware that it is in the United States interests to get Russia into WTO, as well as in the interests of number of western countries; but at the same time our partners understand legitimacy of our complaints [towards Russia],” she said.

“WTO membership issue is not a political one. It is in our interest to have a successful talks and Russia to join the WTO. But as you know we have number of requirements, which are directly linked to WTO requirements and in no way have a political nature,” Kalandadze added.

Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said in March that if Georgia continued insisting on its “politicized” demands, Moscow would try to solve the issue of WTO accession in “other way” – referring to a possibility of vote instead of consensus within WTO. But Michael McFaul said the U.S. would not be in favor of that as it would not be a solution of the dispute.

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