Congress could face a politically thorny vote on trade relations with Russia in the midst of next year's presidential election campaign if Moscow continues to make progress on its bid to join the World Trade Organization, Russian trade experts said on Tuesday.
"Provided that the multilateral negotiations proceed smoothly, Russia's accession (to the WTO) could be possible by the middle of next year," Andrei Dolgorukov, Russia's trade representative to the United States, said during a panel discussion on U.S. business opportunities in Russia and Ukraine.
That would require Congress to establish permanent normal trade relations with Russia by removing it from the dwindling list of countries subject to the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment.
That measure, approved in 1974, tied normal trade relations with the Soviet Union and other centrally planned economies to the rights of Jews and other religious minorities to emigrate freely.
Russia has been in compliance since 1994, but U.S. lawmakers have insisted that Moscow finish negotiations on joining the WTO before voting to lift the measure.
Congress approved permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000 after a hard-fought battle. Many Democratic presidential candidates are taking a cautious stance on trade, with Sen. Hillary Clinton, the current front-runner, calling for a pause in trade deals.
Congressional refusal to lift the Cold War measure would not block Russia from joining the WTO. But it would allow Moscow to legally deny U.S. companies from sharing in the market-opening concessions it has made to join the world trade body.
Last week, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab told reporters the United States was "making significant progress with Russia (on its bid to join the WTO). We're not there yet."
Russia still has to fully implement a bilateral market access agreement it reached last year with the United States and also finish negotiations with all WTO members on an overarching multilateral pact to join the global trade body.
" Russia should be in the WTO. But Russia understands, and I think the government there has come to understand, that they will come into the WTO when the WTO members agree they (Russia) are prepared to behave as WTO members," Schwab said.
Although past predictions about when Russia would join the WTO have proved wrong, "we are getting closer," said Randi Levinas, vice president for policy and programs at the U.S.-Russia Business Council. "The negotiators are making strong progress. I think we really saw a pickup in the negotiations probably about mid-year."
Outstanding issues include U.S. demands for stronger Russian enforcement of intellectual property rights protections, removal of certain barriers to U.S. meat exports and rules for encryption technology and state trading enterprises, she said.
In one tangible sign of progress, the U.S. Agriculture Department reported on Tuesday that a U.S. meatpacker exported 125,000 pounds ( 56,700 kg ) of beef to Russia , the first such shipment since Moscow closed its border to American beef four years ago.
"We would be hopeful for conclusion of the negotiations next year and then ... Jackson-Vanik is the rule we need to be taken off of our books to ensure that U.S. companies and farmers get the access to the Russian market that they need on an equal basis with their competitors," Levinas said.
Reuters , December 11, 2007, by Doug Palmer
(Additional reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Eric Walsh)