Planning our journey

Belarus plans its route to joining the WTO
The World Trade Organisation is known for its liberalism. 90 percent of world trade is conducted through the WTO and its members number 150 — including the EU members, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Ukraine — one of our leading trade partners — is now joining the WTO and is ready to sign all the proposed protocols. The Russian Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin has stated that Russia won’t join the organisation under the same terms as Ukraine; Russia looks set to stand firm for a preferential position on gas, agriculture and the aircraft market to protect its national interests. Belarus is keeping to the same course.

Those in the WTO immediately receive a number of bonuses; obstacles to foreign trade are eliminated and members are able to help decide trading rules. The WTO is a democratic structure — each member having an equal voice regardless of size.

However, each new member has to make some concessions — opening its own market by decreasing customs fees and alleviating quotas to allow imports in. Consumers benefit from a wider range of goods and lower prices but manufacturers must work hard to compete and not all can succeed. Some companies (or even entire industries) inevitably close and jobs are lost. An open market ultimately brings economic growth but it is a big step to take and must be thought over carefully. Losses and benefits have to be calculated for the short and long term. The Foreign Ministry and Belarus’ National Academy of Sciences’ Economic Institute believe that Belarus — to join the WTO — needs to cap the level of state support for the agricultural sector to $504.2m. In no less than 6 years, this could be reduced to $100m.

Grain production, cattle and potatoes won’t need their funding reduced as they already operate competitively (with 5 percent profits). Belarusian metallurgists are likely to benefit from joining the WTO as they have suffered from anti-damping sanctions. Timber, wood-processing and cellulose-paper enterprises will do well and fuel, chemical and petrochemical industries also have optimistic forecasts. However, building materials and telecommunications could face difficulties and our banks may not be able to compete effectively against the rates offered by foreign counterparts (Russian bankers already complain that foreign capital is pushing them out).
We must join the modern world eventually and the advantages seem obvious — having calculated the pros and cons, it seems that if Belarus joins the WTO on favourable terms, it could gain $100m annually. This is not expected before 2007 however. President Alexander Lukashenko has remarked, “We shall benefit in many directions on joining the WTO. It won’t be the end of the world if we join it after our neighbours as we’ll have time to adapt for it. Some difficulties are likely but we’ll overcome them.”

Everyone must find their own path and, for us, it seems the adage of ‘more haste and less speed’ is appropriate. We must improve our legislative base, determine our ‘share’ during negotiations and dynamically develop our economy in order to be ready for further challenges. This journey may be just as important as the final destination.

by Vitaly Volianiuk
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