No Timeline for WTO Accession

GENEVA — Russia's WTO negotiator backed away from a concrete timeline for entry into the trade body Monday as major barriers promised to hinder talks.

The negotiator, Maxim Medvedkov, said three trade disagreements — over farm subsidies, export taxes on wood and rules concerning Russian state monopolies such as Gazprom — and Russia's tense political situation with Georgia were holding up talks on Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.

"I hope that we are not very far from the end," Medvedkov said.

But unlike in previous meetings, he offered no concrete timeline for when Russia hoped to complete the negotiations.

Stefan Johannesson, who heads the WTO committee steering talks with Russia, said there was no deadline to complete the negotiations. "This is a result-driven process, and the end will come when the end will come," he said at a news conference. "There's enormous work ahead of us."

Russia has been trying to gain membership since 1994 and has watched other former Soviet republics slide in ahead of it, notably Georgia in 2000 and Ukraine this month.

Georgia is demanding that Russia stop trading with its two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that all goods pass through checkpoints run by the central government. Georgia holds a veto over Russia's WTO membership, because any accession package would have to be approved by all WTO members. "Our position is that the WTO should not be used for political discussions," Medvedkov said. "It is a trade body. It should concentrate on trade."

The debate over wood taxes has pitted Russia against two other European nations — Sweden and Finland, home to several of the largest paper and pulp producers in Europe.

Russia increased its taxes on wood being sold abroad in June 2007 and April and has planned a third increase on Jan. 1. The Nordic countries, whose paper makers have to pay more for the raw product than their Russian competitors, claim that the taxes contravene the EU's agreement with Russia over conditions for its WTO entry.

Medvedkov called the EU's demands "rather controversial" for some already existing WTO members. Export taxes are used to ensure an oversupply at home for local commodities and thus lower prices for domestic industries needing the raw materials.

Medvedkov blamed the holdup over Russian state enterprises on U.S. legislation that demands such companies operate in a commercial manner. That would mean that Gazprom would have to reform its pricing policies for fuel, which is sold far below global prices in Russia but at much higher rates in Europe.

Saudi Arabia, which had to change how its state energy companies operate when it joined the WTO in 2005, is demanding that Russia accept the same conditions.

Medvedkov said Russian negotiators would be going to Riyadh next week for talks.

Johannesson said his working group would meet again in the week of June 16. But the meeting will officially be informal because of Georgia's stance. Final approval by the working group, whenever that happens, will need to take place at a formal meeting. (AP, Reuters)