Kazakhstan’s government wants to join the 132-country World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1998. So declared Minister Erjan Utembaev, head of the Agency for Strategic Planning and Reform, at a government meeting in Akmola on February 24. (Russian agencies, February 24) The meeting established a committee headed by Utembaev mandated to negotiate optimal entry terms. (Delovaya nedelya, February, 26)
Kazakhstan, like all countries of the CIS except Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, has been an observer government of the WTO since 1996. At the meeting, however, it expressed certain concerns about full membership. It acknowledged significant trade advantages but also pointed out the drawbacks. (Panorama, February 27) The Ministers of Agriculture and of Energy, Industry and Trade said they saw little benefits in membership when U.S. and European export markets for many of their products remain highly protected. Nor were any of those present happy with the WTO’s imposition of a maximum import tariff of 15 percent on what is an already thin and ailing industrial sector. In the final analysis, Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbaev said, protection of home markets was top priority. (Panorama, February 27) The government’s reservations notwithstanding, Kazakhstan would, on balance, benefit from freer trade even if (or perhaps because) its domestic producers face tougher import competition.
The meeting served as a convenient platform to voice Kazakhstan’s frustrations with the four-country customs union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Reflecting President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s failure in January to get any of his reform proposals accepted in Moscow, Utembaev said that Kazakhstan’s suggestions "often remain unanswered and dormant." According to the minister, the main obstacle in Kazakhstan’s two rounds of negotiations with the WTO last year was its membership of the customs union, where tariff provisions contravene those of the WTO. The union members originally agreed to apply to the WTO together, but divergence in the four economies make joint application, let alone admission, increasingly unlikely. (See Monitor, March 4 for Ukraine WTO article)
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