Wine, Women, and the WTO

on 17/03/11 at 4:55 pm

Booze News

It was a wonderfully Georgian scene. We sat in a little brick farmhouse at the table of a magnificently jolly host named Jumber, who served barbecued pork and wine he had made just a few yards away. Through the window I could see rows of vines, then a medieval church perched on a rock, with snowy mountains framing the horizon behind it. Jumber raised expansive toasts to everyone at their table and their relatives. When it was my turn I drank “To Wine.”

Of course I was drinking at Jumber’s table for professional purposes. My main line of inquiry: how the state of the Georgian wine industry affects Russia’s prospects of joining the World Trade Organization. As we all know, Russia is by far the biggest economy currently not a part of the WTO. Since 1991 the Russian government has changed its mind several times as to whether it will win or lose more by opening up its economy to the full force of international free trade, but finally it has decided to go for it, with Western support. Western businessmen are relishing what could be an increase in billions of dollars in Russia’s trade turnover. If all goes smoothly, Russia could join the WTO by the end of the year.

But one problem remains: Russia’s relations with Georgia, which, as one of the WTO’s 153 members, has the ability to block the accession of a new country.

Everyone is playing it cool. U.S. and European officials are clear that Georgia’s objections are a bilateral issue between Moscow and Tbilisi which they will not get involved in—openly at least. The mediator between the two sides is the Swiss foreign ministry. The Georgians say they do not want to “politicize” the issue—except that what they say are “trade concerns,” the status of the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are very much political issues in Moscow.

There is however one purely trade issue which has to be resolved if Russia is to overcome Georgian objections. That is the embargo on wine and mineral water that Moscow imposed on Georgia.

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