Violent protests tended to distract public attention from the work of trade ministers at last week's meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the U.S. city of Seattle. But WTO candidate countries from Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia were not deterred from their main objective. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully reports from Seattle that they kept their eyes on the goal of joining the WTO.
Seattle, 6 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The demonstrations that dominated press coverage of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle did not trouble former Soviet-bloc countries that sent observers to the sessions.
In fact, officials of these nations, who were interviewed by RFE/RL, indicated that they approve of peaceful public dissent as it is sometimes expressed in the U.S.
On Tuesday morning, just before the meetings were to begin, thousands of demonstrators descended on the center of the western U.S. city, deliberately blocking access to the convention center and the hotels where WTO delegates were staying. Seattle came to an abrupt halt.
Some of the protests turned violent, and correspondents found themselves dispatching stories not about farm subsidies and labor standards but about smashed shop windows and tear gas.
The demonstrators had vowed to shut down the meetings on trade liberalization. While they did not achieve that goal, they did disrupt the sessions. And even after Seattle authorities had regained control of the streets, delegates kept wondering if further violence would erupt.
Asked by RFE/RL about the protests, the charge d'affaires at the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington expressed no real concern. Elmar Mamedyarov said the protests can call attention to issues that might be overlooked otherwise.
Similar views were expressed by Nijole Zambaite, minister counselor at the Lithuanian Embassy to the United States, and by Elyor Ganiev, Uzbekistan's minister of economics, and his Kazakh counterpart, Zhaksybek Kulekeyev. Such dissent, even peaceful dissent, was rare and often severely punished in their own lands a little more than a decade ago. International human rights groups and some western governments still regularly express concern about limitations on dissent in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
But the main concern of these governments' representatives at the WTO meetings was simply to advance their efforts to join the world trade body. They say they want their economies to mature through increased international trade -- and to strengthen their young democracies by adhering to strict, clear rules of commerce.
Kazakhstan's Kulekeyev summed up these sentiments best in an interview with RFE/RL.
"We are building a democratic society in Kazakhstan with an open-market economy and therefore, not only we, but all countries who are building an open-market economy are attempting to get into the WTO, since the WTO sets the rules for world trade. We want to join this process and we want to enjoy all the privileges which WTO members have. First, this means the elimination of tariffs and limits on our exports. Secondly, it means obtaining transit rights for our goods on their way to third countries. And it means access to mechanisms for resolving trade disputes through membership in the WTO."
Ten nations from Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia are now full members of the WTO: Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and Kyrgyzstan.
Most of the other states from the region have observer status and have applied for full membership. In addition to Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, they include Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Macedonia, Russia, and Ukraine.
All 24 countries sent delegations to the WTO's Seattle meetings.
It is generally felt that membership in the WTO provides mainly privileges. But concessions are required, too, because trade, by its nature, is not one-sided. Importing a given product can mean stiff competition for a domestic producer of the same product.
Further, potential WTO members from the East praise the body's regulations for helping guide newly independent nations as they emerge from communism. But sometimes these regulations are imposed abruptly, and can cause financial hardship.
These issues do not seem to overly concern many nations on the WTO's threshold. Indeed, Ganiev, Uzbekistan's trade minister, is eager to join. He told RFE/RL that his country is ready to satisfy other governments that Uzbekistan is ready.
"I think that if we succeed in preparing answers to the questions put to us soon, we can hold the first meeting of the working group in the Spring of the year 2000. Of course, the process of entering the WTO is a rather complex and difficult process, which touches on many spheres of a country's economy and therefore it can take a significant amount of time. But we are optimistic. Uzbekistan is further liberalizing its trade. And we hope to become a member of the WTO within three to five years."
Whatever the risks and hurdles, almost all the governments of Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia appear eager to reap the benefits -- and take on the responsibilities -- of joining in global commerce.