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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Against Starting Over on WTO Talks

Russia wants to preserve the progress it made during 16 years of talks to join the World Trade Organization, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Thursday, as Russian, Kazakh and Belarussian negotiators were presenting a joint bid in Geneva.

"We need to prevent the level of agreement that we've reached with the WTO from falling or being lost," Putin said in a meeting with Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina, whose ministry oversees the talks.

Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan announced last week that they would suspend individual accession talks with the WTO and pursue a joint bid as a customs union, a grouping that they aim to create in January.

"We have already gone most of the way in the course of many years of talks," Nabiullina said. "Of course, we don't want to lose that."

Delegations from the three countries held a grueling first meeting to discuss a new accession format with WTO members, Russia's chief negotiator, Maxim Medvedkov, said late Wednesday.

The delegations spoke with some 60 to 70 countries for an "informal" meeting earlier Wednesday, Medvedkov said.

"The discussion was quite tough," he said, Interfax reported.

A number of countries said the change could delay their bid because there had been no precedents, Medvedkov said.

There are no WTO rules for countries joining as a customs union, although existing members can form one. Article 12 of the group's charter says "any … separate customs territory possessing full autonomy in the conduct of its external commercial relations" can become a member, although it was not immediately clear whether the Russian proposal would apply.

A number of countries said at the meeting that customs unions could potentially join only if they have the authority to regulate all trade, including in services, Medvedkov said. In fact, such unions would also have to administer a unified policy for intellectual property, nontariff barriers, health and safety, the trade officials told Reuters.

The customs union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus will regulate only trade in goods.

Several countries said the customs union must start talks after it becomes fully functional in July 2011, Medvedkov said. Russia had been planning to start joint accession talks in January.

The delegations will continue talks in Geneva to discuss options to convert their individual accession bids, Medvedkov said.

As one option, the customs union might conduct talks for goods trade, while the three national governments might handle the trade in services and other areas, he said.

Trade diplomats said members could decide to relax Article 12 or find some other way for the three to accede — perhaps by pursuing individual applications and then joining simultaneously to be recognized as a customs union, Reuters reported.