West locks horns with Russia at WTO

12th May 2014, Comments 0 comments

Western nations crossed swords with Russia on Monday at the WTO, claiming that Moscow had breached global commerce rules by slapping trade embargoes on goods from ex-communist countries.

"We have seen a lot of those measures and they are not convincing," said European Union trade ambassador Angelos Pangratis.

"This is a situation where we see an important member not having the overall attitude that is expected. There is out there a real concern about a lot of practices, not just one or other specific issue," he told reporters.

Since joining the WTO in 2012, Russia has imposed trade bans on goods such as dairy products, chocolates, wine and meat from countries including Lithuania, Poland, Moldova and Ukraine.

Moscow has cited quality concerns that allow countries to take such a step under WTO rules. Critics say Russia offers little scientific evidence and claim the bans are political, hitting countries that refuse to tow their Soviet-era master's line.

US ambassador Michael Punke also hit out at Moscow's stance during what insiders said was an unusually heated meeting of the WTO's governing General Council, made up of all 159 member economies.

In a statement at the meeting, Punke flagged major concerns over "a lack of seriousness" on Russia's part about implementing its World Trade Organization entry terms.

Other members, including Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland, backed the EU and US criticisms.

- Russia 'building walls' -

Punke condemned what he called Russia's "general rejection" of a WTO core goal: the reduction of trade barriers.

Russia has come under fire for giving its automobile manufacturers an advantage by hitting foreign imports with extra fees, for example.

The Geneva-based WTO polices global trade accords in an effort to offer its member economies a level playing field, and can authorise penalties against wrongdoers.

"More broadly, we note that Russia is moving increasingly to build walls around its economy, whether through implementing trade restricting measures such as those already mentioned or by adopting import substitution and local content rules that have the same trade restrictive result," Punke said.

Russia rejected the criticism and in turn lambasted EU energy market reforms, which it says hurt its gas giant Gazprom. It has already asked the WTO to rule on their compliance with international trade treaties.

Moscow also condemned Western sanctions imposed after Russia seized Crimea from neighbouring Ukraine in March, which range from travel bans and asset freezes to restrictions on banking operations.

The West has ratcheted up the measures to punish what it says is continued Kremlin backing for pro-Russian separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Maxim Medvekov, Russia's chief trade negotiator, told reporters that such measures were totally out of line because they restrain trade.

"There's a set of rules. If somebody's not implementing the rules, they should explain why they are not doing so," he said.

US ambassador Punke rejected the accusation, telling reporters: "We're extremely confident that the actions we are taking are WTO consistent."

Russia's WTO accession negotiations ground on for more than a decade, and Moscow has argued that newcomers need time to adapt.

But EU envoy Pangratis said that was only half the story.

"Any member who joins the WTO goes through a period of adapting. That's a fact of life. And it's also normal to have disputes among members," he said.

"But what is really important here is the overall attitude and the number of problems that we are seeing."

© 2014 AFP

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