Despite continuing dependence on trade ties with the EU, Russia is seeking closer links with US and China and makes joining WTO a priority
World Trade Organization membership, visa wrangles and Russia’s warming to China and the US rather than the EU were the main themes of the Kremlin-sponsored St Petersburg International Economic Forum.
Attended by a weighty line-up of political leaders and leading executives from the international business community, the forum underlined the Kremlin’s main foreign policy initiative : promoting a multi-polar world. The EU will undoubtedly be disappointed with its low profile at the meeting in terms of initiatives and deals.
A comment by BP’s chief executive Bob Dudley highlighted Europe’s difficulties. He told delegates that his company’s deal to explore the Arctic with Russia’s state-owned Rosneft ‘‘was in everyone’s interests” – at about the time that Rosneft announced it would find another partner.
One of the main messages coming out of the meeting, held on June 16-18, was that Russia was disappointed with Europe, and was working towards closer co-operation with the US and China. European leaders were invited to the forum as honored guests, but the presence of China’s President Hu Jintao was a reminder of Russia’s ever closer ties with its eastern neighbor.
President Dmitry Medvedev said in his keynote speech: “The global financial crisis created big financial imbalances in a number of countries, including in Europe and the United States. New bubbles can form in almost any market, as we have seen clearly; and, with the global financial system the way it is, when they burst, the whole world feels the effects.
“There can be no doubt as to Russia’s continued integration into the global economy. We have no choice here.”
While closer integration with Europe, by far Russia’s largest trade partner, remains important, Mr Medvedev stressed that joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) was Russia’s top priority for external trade relations.
“I think we can realistically complete the process [of joining] by the end of the year, if, of course, political games do not start up again,” he said.
The president blamed these “political games” for Russia’s long delay in joining the global trade club, but also took a sideways swipe at the EU for playing similar games, particularly on the easing of visa requirements.
“We seek to introduce visa-free travel with the EU and other countries, but much here depends on our partners. We are ready to demonstrate our goodwill on this matter by taking concrete steps,” Mr Medvedev said.
The visa issue has become a sticking point in developing bilateral ties , and was largely responsible for the lack of any results at the Russia-EU summit in Nizhny Novgorod on June 9-10, where WTO accession and visa requirements topped the agenda.
The two sides are so far apart on the visa question that they cannot even agree on a date to start discussions on what to do. The deadline to start talks about introducing a
visa-free regime between Russia and the EU was delayed again to the end of July.
Nor was there any movement on the EU’s stance towards Russia’s membership of the WTO, which is a pre-condition for talks on a badly needed new Russia-EU basic agreement. Without the accord, Russia’s prospects for joining the trade club before the end of this year are less favorable, despite the optimism of both the Kremlin and commentators.
And little progress was made in the Partnership for Modernization: the European Investment Bank and Russia’s state-owned Vnesheconombank only signed a memorandum of understanding to mutually consider funding projects that are part of this programme with up to €500m (£445m) from each side.
Lack of progress in visa talks with the EU was thrown into relief by an announcement on the first day of the forum by the US ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle. The diplomat said a new agreement to give citizens of Russia and the US three-year multiple-entry visas had been agreed – a significant easing of rules and an important gesture.
“Three years is just the first step,” Mr Beyrle promised
delegates to the forum.