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Obama “personally engaged” in Russia-Georgia WTO dispute

Obama “personally engaged” in Russia-Georgia WTO dispute

Senior Obama administration officials have been saying for months that the United States would not get involved in the Russian-Georgian dispute over Russia’s desire to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Today, it was revealed that the administration, including President Barack Obama, has been deeply involved in the dispute for a long time.

Russian accession to the WTO is a major goal of the Obama administration’s "reset" policy with Russia. However, the country of Georgia, a WTO member that has longstanding grievances with its larger northern neighbor, stands in the way because new members must be admitted by consensus. Russian troops have occupied the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and Georgia wants concessions on customs and border administration before it agrees to allow Russian to join the WTO.

Russia and Georgia began meeting in February in Switzerland to work out a deal. In March, National Security Council Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul said that while it’s a fact that Russia cannot join the WTO unless Georgia agreed, he insisted that the United States would not try to mediate between the two countries.

"There is a process underway [to resolve the outstanding trade issues]. I don’t want to prejudge it because we’re not involved in it," he said. "At the end of the day this is a bilateral issue, not a trilateral issue."

Skip forward to today, when Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in France. A senior White House official told ABC News after the meeting that Obama has "personally been engaged in" the issue for months, and actually set up the Swiss negotiations and convinced both the Russian and Georgian leaders to attend.

The senior official also compared the Georgians to the Palestinians, saying that, with regard to Georgia’s desire to end the Russian occupation, "[T]he WTO is not the forum in which to resolve this… like the Palestinians pursuing the vote at the U.N."

"We think that Russian accession to the WTO will be good for the Russian economy, will be good for the U.S. economy, it will be good for the world economy," Obama said today. "And we are confident that we can get this done."

There are also signs that senior administration officials have placed pressure on Georgia to make a deal. A senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable that U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, while briefing senators before a recent congressional trip that included a stop in Georgia, asked those senators to pressure Georgia to move toward acceptance of Russia’s membership in the WTO.

"It was odd to hear Ambassador Kirk behind closed doors urging a group of senators to pressure Georgia to ‘be reasonable’ while, we understood, the administration was saying publicly it would stay out of a Georgia-Russia issue," the aide said.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in a March interview with The Cable, said that the Russians were expecting the Obama administration to pressure Georgia into backing down, but that U.S. objectivity in the matter was key to getting it resolved.

"[The Russians] were telling the Americans that we will make a deal with you and Georgia comes as part of the package. I heard some Russians say that it just takes one call from Vice President [Joseph] Biden to Saakashvili to convince him and make him shut up. "But it’s not like this and the Americans know it’s not like this," Saakashvili said.

"Some Russians were saying ‘we’ll let back in your wine and you will change your position.’" Saakashvili said. "We don’t have any wine left to sell to the Russians. That’s not the bargaining chip. We need transparency of border transactions and customs issues. That’s where we need to find mutually acceptable solutions with the Russians."