- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Russia faces its best chance in a decade to join the world's most important club for international trade after years of fruitless negotiations, according to trade officials and business groups.
Moscow is entering a crucial phase of negotiations over membership in the World Trade Organization with the full backing of the United States, which is eager to cement its cooperation in the war on terrorism.
Eugene Lawson, president of the U.S.-Russia Business Council in Washington said the timing is right for Russia to join the WTO. "It's now to our advantage to accelerate this process."
Russia, which formally applied for membership to the 142-member WTO in 1995, remains the only major country outside the trading system. The latest entrant, China, was accepted at a WTO meeting in Qatar two weeks ago.
Joining the WTO would be a seal of approval for Russia, which faced a currency crisis after defaulting on its debt in 1998.
Since then, President Vladimir Putin has embarked on an aggressive reform program with new laws on property ownership, banking and corporate taxation.
The country has experienced three years of solid growth, and its economy will expand by 4 to 5 percent this year, despite the worldwide slowdown, Mr. Lawson said. Russia has also paid back nearly $30 billion in debt.
To join the WTO, Russia would have to reduce tariffs on imported goods, ease conditions for investors in financial services and telecommunications, and agree to treat foreign and domestic firms equally.
Those changes would be a boon to U.S. firms, who have faced some of the toughest conditions for doing business anywhere in the world. American companies exported $2.3 billion in goods and services to Russia last year, while imports hit $7.8 billion.
Negotiations to bring Russia into the WTO hit a rough patch this past summer. Russian diplomats traveled to the Geneva-based WTO and complained bitterly about harsh treatment by other countries, which wanted to review Russian trade legislation before it was even passed.
"It was a quite bad meeting," said one WTO official, who asked not to be identified.
But earlier this month, Maxim Medvedkov, Russia's deputy minister for economic development and trade, was more upbeat at the Qatar meeting, where his country participated as an observer.
"We are ready for rapid and fair solutions based on pragmatism, and do hope that our negotiating partners will share this approach," he said.
Meanwhile, U.S.-Russian relations have changed considerably since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The Bush administration has sought Russia's help in tracking down terrorists and its approval for the deployment of U.S. troops in former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, said during a late September trip to Moscow that Russia's WTO membership was on the fast track as relations between the two countries entered a new era.
"Russia's accession to the WTO would be good for Russia and for the international community," Mr. Zoellick said.
"Having said that, sometimes tragedy also presents opportunities for those who are alert."
President Bush and Mr. Putin announced at their summit meeting in Crawford, Texas, on Nov. 13 that the two countries would place "considerable priority" on WTO membership for Russia. They also approved a broader economic-cooperation summit.
"We are committed to creating conditions that will enhance our trade and investment relations and help Russia reach its economic potential as a fully integrated and leading member of the world economy," the two leaders announced in a joint statement.

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