Normally, the stuff I write here is a more or less immediate response to something I read elsewhere within the last few days; usually something current that simultaneously annoyed me, and suggested to me that it was likely to have annoyed a wider audience as well. Although this piece is – technically – in the same vein, as the issue has annoyed a wide audience, the matter has been simmering for 17 years. That’s how long Russia has been waiting for acceptance into the World Trade Organization.
In their excellent article for Foreign Policy Magazine this past June, economists Anders Aslund and C. Fred Bergsten argue in “Let Russia Join the WTO” that, well, Russia should be allowed to join the WTO. Since 17 years does seem like one hell of a long time to be kept waiting, there must be a good reason, right? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m likely to be sympathetic toward Russia if they’re getting jerked around for no reason except that they’re Russian. I like to think I’m not sympathetic at all when Russia as a nation is clearly in the wrong, or if its critics have done a good, non-hypocritical job of substantiating their case. The best way to not look like a fool is to research the subject, so we’re going to do that; and even though it’s a complicated issue, we’ll try to make it as simple as we can. Ready? Let’s get started with a look at the WTO itself – who makes up its membership, and why is Russia interested in being a member?
In looking at who makes up the WTO, I’ve approached it with the objective of answering the Russia question immediately. If the WTO is exclusively made up of prosperous, progressive democracies who enjoy the rule of law, are attentive to national and global human-rights issues and boast a stable economy, I will have saved myself a lot of typing (which I’m not especially good at) and you a lot of pointless reading. Let’s take a look.
Well, it looks like we’ll have to pursue this a bit further. Niger, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad are all WTO members. Know what else they have in common? They’re the worlds’ five poorest countries. Ireland has been a WTO member since 1995 – hey, didn’t they just ask Europe for a $113 Billion bailout package, to prevent the continent’s soup kitchens from being overrun by leprechauns? Greece has also been a WTO member since 1995: you know where I’m going with that – that’s right, a $145 Billion bailout loan.
Did I mention Russia has the third-largest cash reserves in the world, and the lowest national debt in the G20? Okay, I think we can eliminate “fiscal responsibility” as a qualifier for WTO membership without belabouring the point further.
How about human rights? Well, let’s go back to our membership roll again. Oh, oh; I see a problem. Zimbabwe is a member, apparently in good standing, of the WTO, and has been since 1995. What does their human rights record look like? In a word, awful: according to Amnesty International’s most recently published report, Zimbabwe’s human rights situation continues to deteriorate. ” Prominent human rights defenders, political activists and their family members were abducted by groups of armed men believed to be working on behalf of or with the acquiescence of the Zimbabwean authorities. The abductions were conducted in broad daylight with total impunity”. National life expectancy is a pitiful 40.9 years. Good enough for the WTO, though.
Well, then, what about the rule of law? Let’s see; what do Chad, China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia have in common? They all made two lists that are of immediate concern to us – that of the 10 most repressive countries in the world according to Freedom House (which Russophobes love to quote when it says something bad about Russia)….and membership in the WTO. Burma twisted the needle right off the shitty-meter in terms of how horribly repressive, dictatorial and un-free the country is – hey, remember when Tropical Cyclone Nargis waltzed through there in 2008, causing the worst natural disaster in the country’s history? I remember it well, as I wasn’t far from there at the time. Do you remember the government’s response to earnest offers of international help? Let me refresh your memory, if you don’t: “…people are capable of rising from such natural disasters even if they are not provided with international assistance…people can easily get fish for dishes by just fishing in the fields and ditches. In the early monsoon, large edible frogs are abundant. The people can survive with self-reliant efforts even if they are not given chocolate bars from the international community”. Oh, you won’t find Burma in the list of WTO members. That’s because they changed their name to Myanmar back in 1989, under which name they are indeed – you guessed it – a WTO member since 1995. Freedom House is just a little stubborn, apparently, or they just liked the name “Burma” better.
I don’t think we need to go any further with this line of inquiry – I daresay we’ve substantiated that it is not adherence to the rule of law, fiscal responsibility or respect for human rights that is keeping Russia out of the WTO. Well, then, what is?
I should have asked, “who is”, because it’s the United States. According to World Security Network, “The United States is the last major country to put up obstacles to Russian entry to the WTO”. And that article dates back to 2006. Yes, back in 2006, Senator Bill Frist said – and I quote – “Russia’s disregard for the rule of law, human-rights violations and other anti-democratic tendencies color the position of the United States”. There’s no record of whether his tongue immediately began to smoke, turned black and fell out of his mouth onto the carpet. Hey, Bill; let’s try a little free-association: I want you to close your eyes, and say the first thing that comes into your head when I say the trigger phrase. Ready? Abu Ghraib.
Cat got your black, smoking tongue, Bill? Let me help you. Were you thinking, “naked, prostrate Iraqi prisoner crawling at the end of a leash held by a U.S. soldier”? Well, was it “amputations performed by non-doctors”? No? How about, “chest tubes recycled from the dead to the living”? “Attached a fake IV to a dead man’s arm (in a case later ruled a homicide) to create the impression he was still alive”? Any of this ringing a bell?
The photos of this exercise in the rule of law and human rights were released…that’s right, in 2006, just 2 months before Bill Frist’s self-serving assertion that undemocratic behavior, failure to adhere to the rule of law and violations of human rights were keeping Russia from WTO membership.
I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from pursuing that any further, either. Suffice it to say the USA’s own record on human rights and the rule of law is a little tarnished by that disgraceful episode, and that WTO membership already includes several countries whose oppressive regimes make Russia look like Disneyland. Instead, let’s look at it as a practical matter, to see if there would be any benefits.
Why, yes; there would. It would be a benefit to world trade, for a start. Russia accounts for 2% of global commerce. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much, but Russia is also 8th in the world in terms of purchasing power parity. How many of the smaller members would you have to group together to get that kind of economic clout? Well, I can help you there, too; if you look at this table, you’ll see Russia sits at number 5 for current account balance in the world. The negative-balance countries start at number 64, and the USA is at the very bottom, at number 181. I don’t mean to suggest Russia has more purchasing power than the USA; that would be ridiculous. But the USA is financing itself on credit, and many, many of the debtor nations cited are also WTO members.
I’m sure this philosophy has holes in it, because I’m not an economist. Economists might tell you that this parameter has no relationship to that parameter. But if an economist tells you there’s no relationship between money in the bank, an educated and underemployed workforce, a powerful energy-based economy and enhanced trade opportunities, he’s full of shit.
Joining the WTO would benefit Russia, too. According to economists Aslund and Bergsten, it’d add (potentially) 3.3% to the Russian GDP. The western press, especially the Russophobic element, is forever squalling that Russia’s is an energy-based economy that starves its people when energy prices are low and morphs into a robber baron when they are high. Well, here’s your chance to change that. Entrance into the WTO would open markets to Russian steel, chemicals, lumber and resource-based commodities, for a start.
What’s that? Oh, right: I forgot. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment. This 1974 cold-war holdover denies most favoured nation status to certain countries based on their restrictions on emigration, notably of Soviet Jews. Republicans, who apparently have noticed nothing since the end of the cold war and believe it is still going on, are strongly in favour of keeping Jackson-Vanik rather than repealing it (even though it has absolutely no relevance to modern Russia). They apparently don’t have a problem with Jackson-Vanik being waived for China, which – as I previously mentioned – is one of the world’s 10 most repressive countries. They didn’t have a problem with it being waived for Ukraine, either: by an astonishing coincidence, just as Viktor Yuschenko was heading into tough parliamentary elections following failure to deliver on most of the promises of the Orange Revolution. This probably isn’t the only instance of legislation designed for trade purposes being manipulated for reasons that have nothing to do with trade, but it’s certainly one of the stupidest and most transparent.
Come on, America. You’re out of excuses. Quit stalling.