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World: East/Central European States Attend WTO

The World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings on the U.S. West coast this week will include representatives from many nations. More than two-thirds of the world's countries are full members and almost all the others have observer status. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully reports from Seattle that Eastern Europe is among the regions where the body is making inroads.

Seattle, 29 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Several states from Central and Eastern Europe will be among the full WTO members sending representatives to Seattle this week.

Estonia became the 135th country in the organization when it officially joined earlier this month. Also among the full members are 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. They include Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

The United States' top trade official, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, recently made the argument that countries in the region have benefited from membership. In testimony before the U.S. Senate, she cited the cases of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. She said a large benefit is that attaining membership forces countries in transition from communism to make the reforms needed to establish a free market economy. Barshefsky argued that this in turn helps to bring about long-term growth.

But concerns have been raised in both the region's full WTO members and in candidate states about some of the consequences of participation in the world trade body.

Latvia became a full member early this year even though farmers had raised concerns that the step would undermine their ability to compete with agricultural imports. They worry in part because duties on grain imports are to be cut from 75 to 50 percent next year.

Others in Latvia, including makers of pharmaceuticals, have complained that WTO membership has forced legal changes that are too rapid. However, Latvia's timber industry is expected to benefit from new trading terms with other WTO states.

With Estonia also now a member, Lithuania is alone among the Baltic states in sitting outside the WTO. Earlier this year, Lithuania's then prime minister Gediminas Vagnorius complained that reforms demanded by the WTO did not conform with demands made by the European Union on its candidate states.

Kyrgyzstan remains the only CIS state to have won full WTO membership, something it accomplished a year ago. Some western observers at the time said membership demonstrated the country's progress in establishing the rule of law and transparency in economic matters.

But membership has also complicated Kyrgyzstan's relations with some of its neighbors. First Russia and then Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan imposed new tariffs.

Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at John Hopkins University in Washington, told RFE/RL earlier this year that he believed Moscow engineered the tariff hikes to send a message to Bishkek. He said Russian officials wanted to punish Kyrgyzstan for seeking closer ties with the West while drifting away from Moscow's economic and political control. Starr added that another reason may have been that in going so far in meeting WTO standards, Kyrgyzstan as a fellow CIS member may have undermined Russia's hopes of winning entry on less demanding terms.

Despite such incidents, many states from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are likely to use the meetings in Seattle to press ahead with their efforts to win full WTO membership. Their delegates are expected to be joined in Seattle by thousands of anti-WTO demonstrators, who are pressing for an end to child labor, in favor of environmental safeguards and for a number of other causes.

RFE/RL asked representatives of two of the region's observer states whether they are concerned the protests might detract from their membership efforts.

Nijole Zambaite is minister counselor at the Lithuanian Embassy to the United States in Washington. She says she is not worried that the demonstrations will interfere with her country's accession hopes.

"I think our accession is going just to proceed according to our merits and negotiations. And I don't think it will be stalled by the demonstrations."

Elmar Mamedyarov, the charge d'affaires at the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington, also is not concerned that the demonstrations will interfere with the WTO's work. In fact, he welcomes the protests.

"From one point of view, it's good because sometimes demonstrations are raising the issues -- which is also very important -- and give a fresh approach to the issues which maybe sometimes can be skipped."

Only a few states from Central and Eastern Europe are as of yet neither full members nor observers at the WTO. They include Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Yugoslavia.

Among states of the Middle East, neither Iran nor Iraq are either members or observers. The region's full members include Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Israel, and Kuwait.

Observers from the region include Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. All but Yemen have applied for full membership.