- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

Russian President Vladimir Putin is surely finding his ranch-rambling, soul-bearing friendship with President Bush to be paying dividends. Last week, the White House said it would recognize Russia as a market economy, a critical step toward Russia's eventual entrance into the World Trade Organization (WTO). This recognition comes shortly after Russia was invited to join NATO as a kind of junior member. Under Mr. Putin's presidency, Russia is making progress integrating economically, politically and strategically with the West. But despite Mr. Bush's soul-gazing affection for Mr. Putin, the U.S. president should ensure that Russia is fully qualified to enter any international organizations before it is ushered in.

On Thursday, the White House said Russia had substantially ended government control over production and the allocation of resources, allowed free bargaining over wages and was open to foreign investment. This recognition of Russia as a market economy is not only an important stepping stone toward membership in the WTO, but it also has a material significance in and of itself. Russian companies will be able to present their own data to counter allegations of "dumping," or selling exports below cost.

Gone are the days when most Russians would purchase television sets with so many bottles of Stolichnaya. In the past two years, the Russian economy has become currency-based. Still, entrenched corruption in the courts and government makes the business climate in Russia far from ideal. And existing agricultural and energy subsidies will surely be a focus of WTO negotiations.

But America also stands to make substantive gains from Russia's accession to the WTO. Russia has been the largest market for U.S. poultry and is a major market for U.S. beef and pork. Also, Russia could well become a major market for U.S. technology and significantly boost its oil production with sorely needed foreign investment. Already, Russia is the world's second- largest oil-producing country.

Likewise, bringing Russia into the NATO fold is part of Mr. Bush's bold effort to realign geopolitics in the wake of the Cold War. By bringing the Kremlin closer to the West, Mr. Bush has decisively weakened an emerging alliance of rogue states which sought to counter America's global reach. With the loss of Russia, the alliance has lost, for the time being, its primary nuclear component.

But the White House would erode the relevance of both the WTO and NATO if the conditions for Russia's membership or association with these bodies were made too lax. While Mr. Bush is certainly wise to woo Mr. Putin closer to the West with steaks a la Crawford and a commitment to integration, America must stand firmly behind the integrity of these organizations.

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