By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama wants Congress to approve "permanent normal trade relations" with Russia this year, before the former Cold War enemy finishes its negotiations to join the World Trade Organization, a U.S. trade official said on Wednesday.
"It's clear that Russia's ambition is to complete the accession process and become a WTO member by the end of the year," said Chris Wilson, assistant U.S. trade representative for the WTO and multilateral affairs.
"Our focus is on trying to achieve a vote before" that happens, Wilson said during a panel discussion of remaining issues blocking Russia's entry into the world trade body.
Wilson said it was important that Congress approve permanent normal trade relations, or PNTR, before a final WTO accession deal is reached to ensure U.S. exporters immediately get the full benefits of Russia's entry, which could occur this December at a WTO ministerial meeting.
If lawmakers fail to approve PNTR and revoke a Cold War-era provision known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, WTO rules would allow Moscow to deny the United States the new access it has negotiated in the Russian market while providing it to other WTO members, he said.
But many lawmakers see a vote on PNTR as a proxy for a vote on Russia's WTO accession and have resisted past efforts to approve PNTR before a final WTO deal is struck.
They have taken that line even though Jackson-Vanik was originally passed to encourage Russia to allow Jews to emigrate freely, and Washington has judged Moscow to be in compliance with that requirement since 1994.
In addition, concern over Russia's record on human rights and its commitment to the rule of law are expected to enter into the debate on PNTR, requiring the Obama administration to mount a major lobbying effort with Congress if it serious about winning approval, one congressional aide said.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
Although talks on Russia's bid to join the WTO have taken years, Wilson said Moscow appeared to see a window of opportunity to finish the process this year, before the 2012 Russian presidential election.
"It's certainly plausible and conceivable to us" that a final deal can be reached in 2011, Wilson said.
Russia has already made a lot of progress on that front but two big remaining issues involve how Russia will harmonize its food, plant and animal import safety rules with global standards and Russian rules for investing in the automotive sector that have raised some concern, Wilson said.
Separately, Russia must consolidate all the tariff cuts it agreed to make in bilateral negotiations with the United States and some 50 other WTO members into a single tariff schedule.
Related to that, Russia hopes to finish negotiations this month with the United States, the EU, Australia, Brazil and other WTO members on new tariff-rate quotas for imported poultry, pork and beef, Wilson said.
Washington also wants further evidence Moscow is serious about enforcing intellectual property rights, he said.
Russia has been working to resolve trade concerns with Georgia, with which it fought a brief war in 2008, so the Caucasus nation will not block its entry into the WTO.
"We are very supportive of that effort," Wilson said, noting the Swiss government has played an important role in shuttle diplomacy between the two.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney)