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Due West: Georgia’s wildcard in Russia’s WTO membership

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For once, a Russia-EU summit produced some specific and good news for Moscow. Dmitry Medvedev and top EU officials, including European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, removed the last hurdles on the way to full EU approval of the WTO membership for Russia.

For once, a Russia-EU summit produced some specific and good news for Moscow. Dmitry Medvedev and top EU officials, including European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, removed the last hurdles on the way to full EU approval of the World Trade Organization membership for Russia. If everything goes according to plan, Russia may be able to join in 2011, after nearly 18 years of on-off negotiations. Russian membership is already supported by the United States as well as by all other major players. It seems that everything is alright for Moscow … but for one little thing: the position of Tbilisi is still unclear.

Officially Georgia, which is a member of WTO, could veto Russia’s accession. For the Georgians to wave Russia through would mean a de facto recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia because Moscow treats them as independent states and conducts trade relations with the them directly.

The government of Mikheil Saakashvili said that it will have no objection to Russia joining the WTO if Georgian customs officials man the border posts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This, in turn, is unacceptable for the Kremlin because it would mean implicit recognition of Georgian sovereignty over the two territories.

Commentators hint at the perspective of Washington and Brussels leaning heavily on Tbilisi in order to make it accept the idea of Russia in WTO. Maybe. However, this will not be easy. Both the United States and the EU officially support Georgia’s territorial integrity. In view of a pro-Republican shift in the United States, even if Barack Obama wanted to try and push Mr. Saakashvili towards being more flexible with regard to Moscow, he would be hard put doing this in full view of Congress where the Republicans are already castigating his policies as “too soft” on Russia. Subjecting America’s ally in Afghanistan (and before that Iraq) to such pressure will create a scandal that Obama hardly wants. Can something be offered to Tbilisi to soften its stance? A NATO Membership Action Plan or a visa-free regime with the European Union and the United States has a certain chance of placating the Georgians, but this is highly unlikely for legal and political reasons.

The future is made more difficult for Moscow by the fact that Mr. Saakashvili could be there to stay for quite some time. In 2013, after his term as president expires, he is expected to become prime minister with presidential-style powers. In the long run, this could create more problems than solutions for the Georgian leader. If he continues to wield real power, he will be increasingly prone to a charge of authoritarianism from the West, the kind that is leveled today against Vladimir Putin. However, Mr. Saakashvili has a significant chance of remaining in the driver’s seat for a long time. This perspective worries quite a few of my Georgian friends who are currently supporters of Saakashvili, but who see democracy in their country as non-negotiable. And potentially it is a reason for Mr Saakashvili to be worried. Still, for now most Georgians seem to have forgiven their president for the military defeat of 2008 and feel quite positive about his sweeping reforms of police and government bureaucracy, and feel positive as well in his informal image and visible determination to give Georgia and its people a better economic future. This may be an uncomfortable reality for Russia’s decision-makers, but politically it is more effective to face rather than deny it.

Official Moscow doesn’t seem to have any other qualms in dealing with Georgia, apart from continuing to disregard its leadership and lending token support to select opposition figures. Many of them are disgruntled former members of the current government and stand no chance against Mikheil Saakashvili. The longer time drags on, the weaker Moscow’s sulky position will look. This is especially true in view of President Saakashvili’s ability to court international and parts of Russian media (look up his recent interview to the Russian edition of GQ). Even if some hypothetical revolution removes him from power, it is hard to imagine a Georgian government that will not follow the same policy line as his with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is a paradox, but the most effective way for the Georgians to move decisively towards EU and NATO membership would have been to admit that these territories are irrevocably lost and by doing so remove the unresolved territorial dispute from the picture. This would have forced the West to formulate a clearer policy vis-à-vis Tbilisi. This doesn’t look likely, just as Moscow’s decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states does not look likely to be revoked either. The situation seems to lead towards an impasse of uncertain length and unpredictable consequences. Russia’s WTO accession is just one of the issues that potentially could become affected.

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What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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