Georgia Challenges Russia's WTO Bid

Negotiators aiming to speed up Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization overcame objections from Georgia during talks in Geneva on Monday, after Tbilisi threatened to block negotiations because of Moscow's decision to boost support for Georgia's separatist republics.

Georgia's tough stance at the talks showed that Russia still faces an uphill battle in its 15-year drive to join the world trade body. After reaching a bilateral deal with the United Arab Emirates last week, Russia only needs agreements with Georgia and Saudi Arabia, as well as approval from the multilateral talks in Geneva, to join the WTO.

The WTO took a "great step forward" in its membership talks with Russia in Geneva, said Stefan Haukur Johannesson, chairman of the negotiations and Iceland's ambassador to the EU, news agencies reported.

Yet, speaking to reporters in Tbilisi, Georgian First Deputy Economy Minister Vakhtang Lezhava for the first time linked heightened tensions with Russia to WTO membership.

"We demand that the order from President [Vladimir] Putin for the government to establish direct links with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which contradicts WTO rules, be withdrawn," Lezhava said, Reuters reported.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined immediate comment.

Putin's order, signed earlier this month, stopped short of formally recognizing the republics, which have functioned under de facto independence since a series of separatist wars in the early 1990s.

The Russian government had hoped to join the WTO this year, but it is already off-schedule after missing its deadline to sign the bilateral agreement with Georgia by the middle of last year.

"It's about trade," Timothy Spence, a Russia WTO expert at the EU-Russia Cooperation Program, said of the bilateral agreement, "but obviously there might be a political angle in the way they approach their trade issues."

Putin has also called on the Cabinet to revive trade ties with Georgia, instructing ministers early last week to hold talks aimed at lifting a ban on imports of Georgian wine, mineral water and other products, as well as ending visa restrictions and speeding up reconstruction of a border crossing.

Georgian wine and mineral water, two of the country's main exports, have been banned since 2006, with Russia citing health concerns and critics pointing to political motives. Russia cut travel and postal links with Georgia following a spying dispute in 2006. Air and sea travel resumed earlier this month.

Strained relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have grown steadily worse in recent weeks. Russia denied reports late last week that it was deploying additional peacekeeping troops to Abkhazia, but the Foreign Ministry said it would use "all possible measures," including a military response, to defend its citizens that live in the republics. Many residents in the republics have Russian passports.

Spence said Russia faces potential WTO barriers from countries other than Georgia, noting that previously sealed bilateral agreements notably a Russia-U.S. deal signed in November 2006 following 10 years of negotiations were not set in stone.

"Russia has signed agreements with the EU and the U.S., but all the i's still have to be dotted," he said. "If something comes up, the U.S. and EU could go back to the drawing board."

Yet Spence, citing talks with Russian government officials, said he believed Russia would achieve WTO membership this year. "They feel much more confident this year than they ever have before," he said.