WASHINGTON – Georgia's prime minister said Wednesday that his country will not support Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization unless Moscow allows Georgian customs officials to operate in two disputed territories allied with Russia.
The hard-line position could put the Obama administration in a difficult situation as it seeks to help Moscow in its bid for WTO membership. Just last week, the administration gave a boost to Russian hopes by announcing that Russia had resolved long-standing issues with the United States that had stalled the bid first requested 16 years ago.
Georgian Prime Minister Nikoloz Gilauri told The Associated Press that Georgia is asking only that Russia adhere to WTO rules before it can join. Any WTO member state, including Georgia, can block membership for a prospective country.
The Georgian demand amounts to insistence that Georgia operate the border crossing between Russia and Georgia in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia recognized both territories as independent after its 2008 war with Georgia and has maintained troops despite a cease-fire agreement that specified a pullout.
"We are for Russia joining the WTO with WTO rules," Gilauri said, adding that in Georgia's reading, the WTO requires border checkpoints to be operated by both bordering countries.
Gilauri was in Washington for a daylong meeting between U.S. and Georgian officials on deepening cooperation.
At the opening of the meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated U.S. demands that Russia pull out of Georgian territory.
Gilauri said Clinton's remarks, which also backed Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity, were "everything we could have possibly wished for."
Georgia has sought such remarks by U.S. officials amid insecurity that Russia could absorb the two territories. Georgia also has watched warily as the Obama administration has made a priority of improving relations with Moscow.
With a reference to Georgian elections in 2012 and 2013, Clinton urged Georgia to strengthen its democratic institutions.
"There is still a lot of work ahead to address issues of political competition, fundraising and accountability," she said.