Amid Doha impasse, Russia accession highlight of WTO meet

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Russia's 18-year bid to join the World Trade Organization will take centre stage at the trade body's ministerial conference which opens Thursday, amid morose prospects for a free trade pact.

Launched a decade ago in the Qatari capital, the Doha Round of negotiations have faltered, with leaders from the biggest economies admitting that negotiations will never come to a fruitful end if talks continued in the same vein.

As a result, the main bright spot of the ministerial conference is expected to be the membership's approval of Russia's bid to join the trade body.

The move would usher in the last of major economies still outside the trading club.

It comes however at a time when strongman Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia is struggling to calm a wave of protests over alleged election fraud.

The recent legislative vote had been seen as a test of Putin's decision return to the Kremlin in March presidential elections and the worse-than-expected result and subsequent protests appear to have caught the state off guard.

Besides Russia, the WTO will welcome two other new members -- Samoa and Montenegro -- to its fold during the three-day meeting.

The ministerial conference takes place however at a time when the nerves of free trade proponents are being tested. The WTO had earlier cut its forecast of world export growth in 2011 to 5.8 percent from 6.5 percent.

Amid the European public debt crisis, the subdued world economic outlook is leading to a rise in protectionist trends, ministers warned on the eve of their meeting.

A group of 20 developing countries issued a statement expressing "serious concern over the increase of protectionism in agricultural trade."

After a meeting with his counterparts from Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa, China's Commerce Minister Chen Deming told reporters that "trends towards protectionism were expected to grow in 2012."

"We need to stabilise our exports as well as stand firm against protectionism next year," he stressed.

The BRICS group also declared that "all forms of protectionism must be resisted."

Meanwhile, the ministers said that they remain engaged in finding a Doha deal, although no formal negotiations are expected to be held during the ministerial conference.

Amid the impasse, China and the United States both announced deals hours ahead of the ministerial to help the world's poorest trading nations.

Washington said it would give $16 million over four years to help four West African cotton-producing countries -- Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad improve the efficiency of their cotton sector.

It added that it would offer duty free and quota free market access for cotton from the world's poorest countries.

Beijing separately announced $20 million over three years in aid, including the supply of farming machines and pesticides as well as good varieties of cotton to the four African states.

However, Oxfam slammed the US initiative as inadequate, saying that "offering poor countries market access for cotton is like Saudi Arabia offering to drop tariffs on oil."

"The main problem has never been US cotton market access, but US cotton subsidies and dumping," said the lobby group.

Separately, a group of activists from 30 countries including Argentina, Indonesia and Zimbabwe, are planning a protest during the ministerial meeting.

In a flyer called "Occupy WTO", the group is calling for a protest site to be set up outside the conference centre where the three-day ministerial meeting is to be held.

© 2011 AFP

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