Russia's Global Trade Agenda

Moscow may have joined the WTO, but it retains a willingness to challenge the limits of trade rules.

Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2012 marked its full and final acceptance into the international trade regime. For the United States and other WTO-member countries, the rewards of Russia’s entry are immediate; they now will receive increased access to the Russian market and will be able to rely on recognized rules and procedures to settle future trade disputes. Russia, in contrast, perhaps wisely remains much less sanguine about the benefits of joining the WTO, especially during the initial transition period. Why hasn’t Russia greeted its WTO membership with a greater sense of celebration? More generally, what does Russia want from trade, and how might it pursue its goals within the existing international trading system? Will the WTO live up to its implicit economic bargain, namely that short-term pain will be followed by long-term gain?

“We should understand that the initial period in WTO will require a serious adjustment of our economy,“ Putin warned in November 2012. He went on to identify animal husbandry, agricultural machinery, medical equipment, cars, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and the food sector as being particularly vulnerable to enhanced foreign competition. He further highlighted the threat that WTO membership posed to Russia’s mono-cities, Soviet-era towns built around single industries that often cannot compete on an international level.

Russia has run through a series of slogans over the past 20 years—“diversification,” “innovation,” “modernization” – in an effort to address the country’s overall lack of global competitiveness. These buzzwords, however, still must be reduced to real products before Russia can tap into foreign markets and reap the true benefits of WTO membership. In the interim, several domestic industries will now be subject to intense pressure from imports that will render them either more competitive or obsolete.

Putin still insists that Russia will gain more than it loses through joining the WTO, and he has come out forcefully against protectionism on several occasions. And yet, within the first few months of WTO membership, Russia has imposed a recycling fee to limit car imports, introduced a ban on the entry of live animals, proposed quotas on foreign films, and expressed zero tolerance for meat imports containing the feed additive ractopamine (directly hitting U.S. exports). It is too early to call this a protectionist trend, and consultations are already underway to address some of these disputes. Nevertheless, viewed collectively these actions constitute a less than auspicious beginning for Russia’s WTO membership.

In the long-term, Russia and its fellow BRICS countries (Brazil, China, India, South Africa) aspire to rewrite the governing rules of global commerce. In the short-term, however, it is the everyday practice of international trade that most upsets Russia. In his December 2012 state-of-the-nation address, Putin introduced the term “deoffshorization” into the Russian vocabulary. He highlighted “the high degree of offshore investments and ownerships” in the Russian economy, noting that as many as 9 out of 10 major transactions made by Russian companies (including state companies) were governed by foreign, not Russian, law. This observation echoed previous discussions within the Russian Duma that questioned the right of Russian companies to choose a foreign jurisdiction to litigate contract disputes. According to the speaker of the Duma Sergei Naryshkin, the widespread use of such tactics posed risks both for the domestic economy and Russia’s national sovereignty.

Putin recognizes that the best way to reverse the prevalent use of offshore companies is to create a legal system that business has confidence in and can impartially resolve commercial disputes. Russia has introduced an independent system of commercial courts over the past two decades that is reasonably well-regarded by disputants. Even the court’s own chairman, however, recently admitted that the enforcement of court decisions remains highly problematic. In light of such negative pronouncements and persistent legal uncertainty, both Russian and multinational companies are reluctant to invest in Russia without the option of litigating – and moving money - abroad.

In his state-of-the-nation address Putin demanded greater transparency in offshore transactions. Later, he also asked the Russian owners of TNK-BP, who received $28 billion for their share of the company, to invest their proceeds in Russia; all this money, it has been reported, will be directed to the owners’ overseas companies. Putin appeared relatively restrained in making these requests, but any determined attempt to push major transactions onshore would undoubtedly upset the rules-of-the-game and send Russian businesses scurrying for cover so as not to expose their assets to the capricious Russian state. A concerted effort against offshore Russian entities would have a chilling effect on major multinational corporations as well, since they also rely on such offshore structures to invest in Russia. Russia, of course, is not alone in criticizing the role that offshore companies play in facilitating global commerce. Any significant step against such established practices, however, would have major negative consequences for foreign investment and potentially Russia’s underlying political stability as well.

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