WTO formally accepts Kazakhstan as new member

Ben Simon

The World Trade Organization on Monday formally accepted Kazakhstan's bid to join the body, ending nearly two decades of negotiations that the WTO has called among the most difficult in its history.

Meeting at its headquarters in Geneva, the WTO General Council approved the membership terms finalised last month.

After the formal approval, WTO Director General Robert Azevedo described the protracted accession process as "very challenging".

But, he said, talks moved quickly once the government in Astana made clear that it was finally serious about WTO membership.

"Once Kazakhstan decided to join the organisation, really, and they clearly gave that message to me less than two years ago, we managed to finalise this despite the immense complexity of the process," Azevedo told journalists.

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- who has led the resource-rich nation for the past quarter century and was recently re-elected with more than 97 percent support -- was on hand to witness the formal acceptance by the council.

While the 74-year-old president of the ex-Soviet republic did not attend the press conference following the meet, his Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrissov described the accession as "historic".

"We have worked very hard. This has been a long and winding road," Idrissov said.

- Liberalisation -

Kazakhstan began WTO accession talks in 1996, but negotiations were repeatedly stalled, in part because of Kazakhstan's membership in the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union.

Also, the government of central Asia's largest economy had dragged its feet in implementing the economic liberalisations that are crucial to WTO membership.

Economic Integration Minister Zhanar Aitzhanova told reporters in Geneva that Astana had agreed to "continue to undertake full liberalisation reforms".

Crucially, this will apply to the telecommunications sector, where previous caps on foreign investment are to be abolished.

Kazakhstan has also agreed to lower import tariffs and to make greater efforts to promote foreign investment.

Experts say Kazakhstan's economy is still far too reliant on resource-based income, with the recent collapse in global oil prices highlighting the urgent need for diversification.

Idrissov said diversification was Astana's "top priority" and that these efforts would be helped by WTO membership.

"We believe that our membership will continue to help... the process of economic reforms," he told journalists.

The country's industrial output remains relatively weak, while agriculture accounts for less than four percent of its gross domestic product.

- Limited benefits -

Analysts have said that in the short term, Kazakhstan's WTO accession will likely serve as a public relations boon for the government, but a dramatic or immediate impact on the ground is unlikely.

"There will be reforms. It is unavoidable because of the state of the economy... but this is not primarily because of WTO accession," said Danielle Feldstein, a senior analyst and central Asia expert at the risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft.

She told AFP that certain benefits of the liberalisation were already being felt, as Astana had begun implementing certain WTO requirements while talks were progressing.

"Kazakhstan has been improving its domestic business environment over the last series of years," she said.

Once the formal ratification process is complete, expected by the end of the year, Kazakhstan will become the WTO's 162nd member.