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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Georgia halts talks on Russia's WTO bid

TBILISI, Georgia - Georgia has blocked the next round of talks on Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization in retaliation for Moscow's blockade of its small southern neighbor, the government said Thursday.

The next meeting of the group working with Russia on its membership talks had been postponed indefinitely at Georgia's request, the Foreign Ministry said. The working group met in Geneva on Thursday and had been expected to set a date for the next round of consultations.

Russia's top WTO negotiator, Maxim Medvedkov, confirmed that that no date had been set for the next round of talks. The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted him as saying that this was because Russia needed time to resolve some issues with certain countries at a bilateral and multilateral level.

In a statement, the Georgian ministry said Russia had banned Georgian wine and mineral water from its market. "And after the recent imposition of new economic sanctions, the situation got even worse. This has practically led to an economic blockade of Georgia by Russia," it said.

Last week, Georgian National Bank President Roman Gotsiridze had said that Georgia, which is already a member of the powerful global trade body, could demand that Russia be barred from the organization unless it ended its sanctions against Tbilisi.

Russia had been expected to sign a membership agreement with the United States at the Group of Eight summit it hosted in St. Petersburg this year — one of the last countries it has yet to clinch an agreement with — but talks stumbled on the question of sanitary controls for U.S. meat imports. Russia is the largest economy outside the 149-nation WTO.

Furious at the arrest of four Russian officers accused of spying two weeks ago, Russia responded by slapping a sweeping transport and postal blockade on Georgia despite the alleged spies' release.

Relations in recent years have become increasingly hostile between Russia and Georgia, whose pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili has sought to join
NATO and throw off historic Russian influence since coming to power in 2003.
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