Official: President Obama Personally Worked to Have Russia and Georgia Resolve Trade Dispute

May 26, 2011 10:17am

Russia’s attempt to join the World Trade Organization consumed much of the discussion between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, officials from both countries said today.

One senior Obama administration official told ABC News that the issue is one President Obama has personally been engaged in for months, to the point that he personally arranged for the Swiss to help negotiate the major sticking point: Russia’s occupation of parts of Georgia.

The WTO working group related to Russia includes representation from Georgia, which wants Russian troops to leave South Ossetia and Abkhazia, republics occupied since the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008.

Since WTO matters are agreed upon by consensus, Georgian objections have been an obstacle to Russia’s decades-long push to join the trade organization. Georgia claims it is withholding its support because it has issues with the customs checkpoints in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The issue is truly the larger one of the presence of Russian troops.

“But the WTO is not the forum in which to resolve this,” the senior Obama administration official said, “like the Palestinians pursuing the vote at the UN.”

Thus, the official said, last November at the APEC forum in Yokahama, President Obama personally intervened, asking Medvedev if he would allow Switzerland to try to mediate the issue. Medvedev agreed.

A few days later, as NATO convened in Lisbon, Portugal, President Obama asked Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili if he would participate. He agreed as well.

In March, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, announced the talks, saying that Medvedev “stressed the impermissibility of politicization of this issue and the attempts of Georgian officials to debate elements unrelated to WTO membership conditions.”

Both countries have taken public positions that suggest little possible common ground: Georgia wants Russian troops to leave; Russia says its troops aren’t going anywhere. But both countries’ participation in the Swiss mediation suggest private positions may be different. There are ways the pot can be sweetened for Georgia, which wants Russia to drop its 2006 embargo on Georgian mineral water and wines and has been pursuing a free-trade agreement with the European Union.

The three-party talks have taken place twice in Bern, with a third meeting scheduled for later this month.

“We think that Russian accession to the WTO will be good for the Russian economy, will be good for the U.S. economy, it will be good for the world economy,” President Obama said today. “And we are confident that we can get this done.”

Michael McFaul, the senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, told reporters today that the U.S. is serving as Russia’s “sherpa” in Geneva, guiding the nation through the process of joining the WTO. Other outstanding issues include the enforcement of intellectual property rights, and the way Russia treats imports of pork and poultry.

– Jake Tapper

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