Little over a week after Russia appeared to clear one of the last major hurdles to its WTO accession by signing a bilateral entry deal with the US, a new potential obstacle has emerged: Moscow's prospective ban on EU meat exports. EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson on 24 November threatened to block Russia's accession if it goes through with plans to ban imports of all EU animal products from the start of 2007. Russia is the world's only major economy still outside the fold of the WTO.
Moscow claims that the restrictions are justified since Bulgaria and Romania, which are set to join the EU on 1 January, have inadequate food safety practices. EU officials have suggested that the claims are spurious. Russia's restrictions on meat imports had also held up its accession talks with the US (see BRIDGES Weekly, 22 November 2006, http://www.ictsd.org/weekly/06-11-22/wtoinbrief.htm ).
Trade in energy has been another irritant in relations between EU governments and Moscow, alongside diplomatic tensions over the recent poisoning death in London of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko (see BRIDGES Weekly, 25 October 2006, http://www.ictsd.org/weekly/06-10-25/story3.htm ).
The EU has already signed a bilateral accession deal with Russia. However, Brussels could still obstruct remaining multilateral negotiations in the WTO working party on Russia's accession.
In related news, newly available information on the Russia-US bilateral accord suggests that Moscow has agreed to undertake some intellectual property (IP) obligations that go beyond core WTO rules. The provisions on clinical test data protection in particular could have a significant impact on access to medicine. The bilateral phase of the WTO entry process has been criticised for allowing existing Members to extort commitments from membership seekers that go beyond standard multilateral rules, as the price of assenting to their accession.
According to a Russian government side letter detailing intellectual property commitments released by the US trade representative's office, Moscow has agreed to
provide a 6-year protection period to "undisclosed information and test data" that pharmaceutical companies provide to state authorities when seeking approval to place a new drug on the market. This would affect the production of cheap generic drugs, since would-be generic manufacturers will have to either run their own expensive clinical tests, or wait for the end of the exclusivity period to access the information necessary to secure marketing approval.
Article 39.3 of the WTO TRIPS Agreement obliges Members to protect such information "against unfair commercial use." However, it stipulates no time period, and specifically exempts non-commercial measures "necessary to protect the public." The US' own bilateral free trade agreements set out 5-year data exclusivity periods. Furthermore, the accession deal appears to preclude both private and public entities from using undisclosed test data, implying that even public non-commercial use of data would be limited. This could further complicate Russia's public health problems with diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.
Russia also pledged to enforce stricter measures against the piracy and counterfeiting of copyrighted material. Like with other countries that have signed bilateral free trade agreements with US, Russia has pledged adherence to World Intellectual Property Organization copyright treaties.
Another provision of the agreement with the potential to go beyond the stipulations of the TRIPS Agreement makes internet service providers liable for supporting websites that contain illegal content. Prior to this, liability was limited to the owners of the particular website.
The US has indicated that it will seek plans to coax further commitments from Russia during the multilateral accession process, especially in the field of intellectual property rights.
In a separate move to win support for its entry into the WTO, Russian President Vladimir Putin on 28 November announced that Moscow would lift a ban on wine and meat imports from Moldova. The former Soviet republic, which relies heavily on wine exports to Russia, had said that it would not consent to Russia's accession as long as the ban was in place.
Even after Russia completes all of its bilateral negotiations, the working party will have much work to do in order to finalise the country's package of accession commitments. Over one and a half years separated the conclusion of China's last bilateral accession deal from its entry into the WTO.
(ICTSD reporting; "Russia may risk WTO entry with EU meat ban," INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE, 24 November 2006; "US-Russia Bilateral/WTO Deal Pushes New Standards for IP Protection," INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY WATCH, 24 November 2006; "Russia to lift ban on imports of meat and wine from Moldova," ASSOCIATED PRESS, 28 November 2006.)