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Uzbekistan: Minister Optimistic About WTO Accession

Uzbekistan is among the observer states seeking full membership in the World Trade Organization. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully speaks with the country's minister of economics on the sidelines of this week's WTO meetings in Seattle.

Seattle, 2 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Elyor Ganiev, Uzbekistan's Minister of Economics, is in Seattle as an observer to the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO). He hopes his Central Asian nation is a full member at the next meeting in two years' time.

Ganiev told RFE/RL in an interview on Wednesday that Uzbekistan has received questions on its worthiness as a trade partner from several countries, including the U.S., the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand.

The sooner those questions are addressed, he says, the sooner Uzbekistan will accede to the WTO.

"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."

Uzbekistan has come under criticism for its trade and economic policies from foreign observers. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its most recent annual report said that in Uzbekistan "tariff barriers and an increasing range of trade controls protect domestic producers from import competition."

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) was also largely critical in its most recent annual country report. The EBRD said Uzbekistan retains restrictions on trade and foreign exchange that protect domestic industries that would not be competitive in the global marketplace. The EBRD noted that new measures restricting trade were introduced in 1997, including registration and repayment requirements for imports and higher tariff rates.

But the EBRD report also said that what it described as "a significant step towards the integration of Uzbekistan into the world economy" was achieved when a partnership and cooperation agreement with the EU went into effect in July.

Meanwhile, Uzbek President Islam Karimov pledged yesterday to take a key step toward encouraging trade and foreign investment. Karimov said the national currency, the som, would be made convertible next year.

Ganiev says that joining the WTO could have a profound effect on Uzbekistan's economy.

"Joining the WTO will allow Uzbekistan to gain access to world markets. Uzbekistan is a country with great economic potential and a dynamically-developing economy, industry, agricultural sector and we hope that Uzbekistan's participation in the WTO will boost the export potential of our country."

The trade minister says that following the rules of the WTO in its dealing with other member states would also have an important effect on Uzbekistan's evolution toward a democratic nation of laws after seven decades of Soviet rule.

"One has to stress that Uzbekistan has firmly chosen the path of building a ... state social, market-oriented economy and a democratic society. And of course, the integration of Uzbekistan into the WTO and other international organizations will enable and stimulate the development of democracy in our country."

Uzbekistan is a major cotton producer and its agricultural sector accounts for more than 20 percent of gross domestic product and employs some 40 percent of the work force. But Ganiev declined to take sides on the division between two powerful blocs in the WTO over agricultural subsidies.

The European Union wants to maintain its subsidies, which keep farm produce from smaller countries price-competitive with exports from larger agricultural nations. These large exporters -- for instance, the United States, Australia and Argentina -- argue that the subsidies give farmers from the smaller agricultural countries an unfair competitive edge.

Ganiev was noncommittal on the subject, saying it required further study. In any case, he added, subsidies must be short-term and carefully targeted.

This week's WTO meetings in Seattle have been held amid sometimes violent protests. Demonstrators argue that the WTO puts profits ahead of workers' rights and the environment, and some have vowed to shut down the meetings.

Ganiev says he is not overly concerned about the unrest. Indeed, he says the WTO should pay attention to the demonstrators, saying that their demands and claims "must also be heard."