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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

One-Eyed Russia

It is often said that "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." It seems that Russia has adopted this maxim, and given up the idea of ever being a full-fledged member of the advanced "first world" community of nations. Instead, its goal is to be the leader of the bannana republics. The Telegraph reports:

Never one to mince words, Vladimir Putin last week attacked the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation. At a ritzy business summit in St Petersburg - the biggest since communism collapsed - the Russian President dismissed the Western-dominated multilateral bodies, set up 50 years ago, as "archaic, awkward and undemocratic". By urging developing countries to consider new forums for economic cooperation - independent of America, the EU and Japan - Putin tapped into deep seams of resentment, built up over generations, in capital cities from Bogota to Beijing.

The ex-KGB judo champion, as ever, picked his moment well. The World Bank is reeling, with the White House refusing even to consider that a non-American might for once be chosen as boss, after Bush groupie Paul Wolfowitz was forced to resign. The IMF, too, has lost its way - being attacked by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-Prize winning US economist, as "appalling" and "the cause of great economic damage". Until recently, developing countries secured serious inward investment only if the IMF, hands firmly on the policy levers, gave a thumbs-up to the outside world.

No longer. And by making that point in St Petersburg - surrounded by thousands of salivating foreign business types who don't care what the IMF says - Putin's words rang true. But Russia's jibe at the WTO was, strategically, most damaging. The Doha trade talks, launched as the "development round" in 2001, are now in cold storage. The huge trade-driven "emerging giants" - the likes of Brazil, India and China - are furious that a deal hasn't been done. Having bought into the WTO, these countries would benefit handsomely from a co-ordinated lowering of trade barriers.

Such nations, insisting on more access to Western markets and lower farm subsidies, blame the EU and US for refusing to give ground. And they're right. Pascal Lamy, the WTO chief and a former EU trade commissioner, admits some of the trade rules are "remnants of colonialism" that "disfavour the developing world". So what is Putin up to? Well, after 10 years of haggling, Russia still hasn't been granted WTO membership. Despite backing America's "War on Terror", Moscow's application continues to be blocked by the West. At the recent G8 summit, Moscow's efforts to join were spurned once again.

I'd venture that Russia has now given up on WTO membership. In St Petersburg, Putin was calling on the entire developing world to spurn multilateralism, insisting that the institutions concerned exist only to protect the interests of a few rich Western nations. That message will resonate with WTO members everywhere who are sick and tired that the Doha round has turned out just like all the other post-war trade talks - with the usual suspects calling the shots. In that sense, Putin's speech could be a turning point in history - marking the end of multilateralism, a half-century experiment wrecked by bull-headed Western politicians. We could, in fact, be on the brink of a return to the historic norm of global economic regionalism, with all the conflict that brings.

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