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Kazakhstan: Astana Closing in on WTO Membership

Kazakhstan could join the World Trade Organization by 2012, says Zhanar Aitzhanova, the country's top WTO negotiator.

Kazakhstani officials are now working on finalizing technical details of its bid, said Aitzhanova, who also serves as minister of economic development and trade. While there are some remaining issues like agriculture subsidies and livestock sanitation regulations to be worked out, “on major issues, we don't have problems,” Aitzhanova said at a May 26 news conference at the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington.

Aitzhanova was in Washington for negotiations with officials from the US Trade Representative’s office. During those talks the two sides reached an agreement in principle on service market access, she said.

Kazakhstan has recently reinvigorated its efforts to accede to the WTO. Its bid was complicated by the decision to enter a customs union with Russia and Belarus, which went into effect in 2010. All three countries are in negotiations to join the WTO, and initially the three countries said they would reorient their bids to enter as a union. Several months later, however, they announced that they would abandon that strategy to again apply as individual countries. WTO officials had indicated that the collective-entry strategy could significantly delay the accession process.

Still, the three countries are coordinating their bids, and that has slowed some aspects of WTO accession while accelerating others, Aitzhanova said. As part of the customs union, the three countries have coordinated their import duty schedules. But in the process of joining the WTO, Russia had already signed agreements with around 60 WTO members on import duties, and Kazakhstan with around 30 countries, Aitzhanova said. Those agreements will now have to be renegotiated.

Overall, she said it was difficult to say whether Kazakhstan’s customs union membership had slowed or accelerated the process of joining the WTO. “We were negotiating [for the WTO] for 15, 16 years before the customs union was established. So it would be really difficult to differentiate what is due to the customs union and what is due to outstanding issues,” she said. “We believe that if there is the political will on all sides this could be done in the nearest future.”

Russia's bid, while technically further along than Kazakhstan's, has encountered political difficulties, namely Georgia's refusal to agree to Moscow's accession. But US diplomats are trying to broker a deal between the two countries. Michael McFaul, senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council, said May 26 that Russia should be able to complete its accession process this year.

Kazakhstan's accession should be completed in the next year, Aitzhanova predicted. “The major lesson I have learned is to never make forecasts on accession to the WTO, because it makes you very vulnerable when these forecasts are not realized,” she said. “Having said so, we really hope that if everything goes smoothly.”

Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the author of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.

Kazakhstan: Astana Closing in on WTO Membership

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