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Friday, October 19, 2007

The Russian Trade Bully

The Wall Street Journal reports that Russia is not only weaponizing its energy resources, but also its trade policy:

Trade is one of Vladimir Putin's favorite tools for sniping at troublesome countries in Russia's "near abroad." Now one of those targets, Poland, is standing up to the bully, threatening to keep Russia out of the World Trade Organization if it doesn't drop its heavy-handed tactics.

A Polish agriculture official announced the ultimatum Monday -- while in Moscow, no less. This comes nearly two years after Russia banned the import of all Polish meat products on health and safety grounds and just as the Kremlin is warning that it might expand the prohibition to include milk and other goods.

No serious person believes that health and safety standards are higher in Russia than in the European Union, which has declared Polish meat products to be safe for sale within the bloc and for export. This is pure politics on the part of the Kremlin, which also banned Georgian and Moldovan wine in March 2006 to squeeze pro-Western governments in those ex-Soviet republics.

Warsaw, too, has possible political reasons for its decision to turn up the pressure. Poland holds parliamentary elections this weekend and opinion polls show the ruling Law and Justice party is suddenly vulnerable. In any case, there's a long road to travel before Russia's WTO membership comes up for a vote. Russia has yet to fulfill several obligations under its bilateral WTO agreement with the EU and its accession won't move forward until it meets them.

Whatever Poland's motivation, it offers a good reminder that the Putin regime can't yet be trusted to play by the rules. EU officials are correct when they say it's in everyone's interests for Russia to become part of the global, rules-based trading system. But the Poles are also right that Moscow must first prove that it belongs in the club.

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