Senators back Georgia in WTO talks with Russia

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 19, 2011 8:13 PM
Senators back Georgia in WTO talks with Russia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. senators urged the Obama administration on Wednesday not to sacrifice Georgia's security and sovereignty concerns in Washington's effort to help Moscow join the World Trade Organization.

Russia, after more than 18 years of negotiations, appears to be on the verge of joining the WTO. But it must first reach an agreement with Georgia, with whom it fought a brief war in August 2008, on customs and border issues.

Russia still has troops in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow recognized as independent nations after the five-day war.

Because the WTO operates by consensus, Georgia has an effective veto over Russia's entry into the world trade body, giving it some leverage over its more powerful neighbor.

Georgia wants customs monitors on its internationally recognized borders, but has conceded they could be international officials rather than Georgian.

The two countries are expected to hold another round of talks this week in Geneva. A round earlier this month in Tbilisi, the Georgia capital, ended in failure.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Senators Roy Blunt and James Inhofe came down strongly on the side of Georgia.

"It should not come as any surprise that Georgian leaders are insisting on maintaining at least some semblance of territorial integrity through the customs process," they said.

"Without such recognition, agreeing to Russia WTO accession could be tantamount to international ratification of a new border arrangement imposed by Russia through force of arms.

"We fail to see how this outcome could possibly be in the United States' national interest," the senators wrote.

If Russia were to join the WTO, the United States would be required under world trade rules to establish "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR) by removing a Cold War-era trade restriction known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

The 1974 amendment denies normal trade relations to countries with command economies that restrict emigration. The determination that nations comply with the provisions of Jackson-Vanick must be made by the president.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives would have to approve PNTR. That is already expected to be a difficult pair of votes, so the White House can not afford to alienate lawmakers whose support it will need.

Blunt and Inhofe, two usually reliable votes for trade, said in their letter they could only support PNTR if Russia agrees to border and custom procedures that respect "Georgia's security considerations and future sovereignty."

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Todd Eastham)