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Russia and Georgia are talking again but U.S. not involved

Three years after the war between Russian and Georgia, the two countries have started a process to discuss Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, top White House officials said. However, the U.S. government is not involved in those discussions. Russia’s bid to join the WTO this year will be at the top of ...

Three years after the war between Russian and Georgia, the two countries have started a process to discuss Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, top White House officials said. However, the U.S. government is not involved in those discussions.

Russia’s bid to join the WTO this year will be at the top of the agenda when Vice President Joseph Biden travels to Moscow next week. The Obama administration strongly supports Russia’s entry and sees U.S. assistance in that regard as part of the reset of U.S.-Russia relations. But Georgia, a WTO member, can single-handedly thwart Russia’s accession. And while the White House sees some progress between the two foes, they don’t want to be any part of that conversation.

"We have worked very closely with our Russian counterparts… to help them in the multilateral process so they can meet their goal of joining the WTO this year," NSC Senior Director for Russia Michael McFaul told reporters on a conference call Friday.

Responding to a question from The Cable, McFaul acknowledged that Russia cannot join the WTO unless Georgia agreed but said he saw movement on that front.

"There are definitely issues remaining between Russia and Georgia regarding trade relations that have to be addressed," he said. "There is a process underway. I don’t want to prejudge it because we’re not involved in it."

But McFaul was firm that the United States would not insert itself into the effort to help Russia and Georgia come to an agreement on the issue.

"We’re not going to do that," he said. "At the end of the day this is a bilateral issue, not a trilateral issue."

Some insiders believe that this message from the Obama administration is meant to push both the Russian and Georgian governments to make a deal on WTO without depending on U.S. incentives or pressures to get it done. Regardless, McFaul said that he believed Georgia was willing to limit the discussions to "deal specifically with the economic and trade issues involved and not make it into a larger debate."

So what does Georgia want from Russia? Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri spelled it out in an exclusive interview with The Cable.

"Georgia’s support to Russia’s WTO membership is conditional. The precondition is fulfillment of obligation taken by Russia in our bilateral accession protocol in 2004 and solving issues of customs administration on the Georgian-Russian border," he said. "Unregulated illegal trade as it takes place now is counter WTO rules. Russia should become member of this rules-based organization but only if it respects trade rules."

Of course, one huge problem is how to define the "Georgian-Russian border." If you are Georgia, that includes the borders between Russia and the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it considers breakaway republics.

When Biden meets with Russian leaders next week, he can tell them that the administration is intent on repealing trade restrictions under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was imposed in 1974 to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jewish emigration.

"We plan to terminate the application of Jackson-Vanik in the near future," McFaul said.

However, lifting the law requires the support of Congress, so the White House can’t count on it being done right away. "It’s not something the White House can’t simply press a button and have it done," added Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken.

Biden will arrive in Russia on March 9. He will stop by the U.S. embassy for lunch with U.S. business leaders, and then take those businessmen on a tour of Skolkovo, Russia’s new "Silicon Valley." That evening he’ll meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. On March 10, Biden will meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, then with civil society leaders, and then give a speech at Moscow University.

After Russia’s WTO bid, the top agenda item for Biden in Russia will be cooperation on missile defense. The United States has been talking to Russia about missile defense cooperation for a long time, but most in Washington are skeptical that it will ever be possible to satisfy’s Russia’s objections to U.S. missile defense in Europe.

"We are on the verge of trying to take an issue that used to be extremely contentious… and to try to make it an area of cooperation," said McFaul. "Without some sort of cooperation on missile defense, it will be difficult" to make progress on further reductions of nuclear stockpiles in Europe, he said.

Several reporters on the call asked McFaul and Blinken what Biden’s message would be to the Russian government on the international response to the bloodshed in Libya.

"We don’t want to address Libya specific questions on this call," Blinken said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin