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UKRAINE

Good WTO News for Yushchenko

DAVOS, Switzerland -- February is shaping up to be a big month for Ukraine, and President Viktor Yushchenko -- backed by a group of heavyweight allies in Davos -- said his country should emerge with flying colors.

On Feb. 5, the World Trade Organization's General Council will vote on Ukraine's long-awaited entry into the World Trade Organization -- a decision that could give Kiev an upper hand over Moscow as well as any European capital tempted to resort to protectionism to ward off global economic turmoil.

Then Yushchenko will fly to Moscow on Feb. 12 for his first visit with President Vladimir Putin since Yulia Tymoshenko replaced the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister.

Yushchenko, speaking Friday at a lunch on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, gave few details about what he expected from the Moscow visit but indicated that he hoped for some resolution to issues that have strained relations, including gas transit fees and the price that Ukraine pays for Russian gas.

"We would like to see new prospects for settling problems with Russia," Yushchenko told a restaurant overflowing with guests. Organizers had to turn away 250 people.

But first is the Feb. 5 vote that Yushchenko will attend in Geneva. The WTO confirmed Ukraine's accession at a meeting Friday, clearing the way for the largely formal vote by the 151-member General Council. Ukraine will then have six months to pass the legislation that it agreed to as part of its entry. The country will become a member 30 days after that.

"I have no doubt that Feb. 5 will be a great day for Ukraine and Ukraine's business partners," said Yushchenko, who has made WTO membership a priority since becoming president three years ago.

Speaker after speaker took to the lectern after Yushchenko to praise his initiatives and Ukraine's course. The loud praise was in stark contrast to last year's Ukrainian lunch at Davos, where Yanukovych was the guest of honor and faced a barrage of criticism from then-Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and other guests over his more Russian-focused vision for Ukraine.

Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn applauded Yushchenko's efforts to bring Ukraine into the WTO as well as NATO and the European Union. "I think the steps you are taking would give encouragement to everyone," he said.

Turning to Yushchenko's upcoming talks with Putin, Wolfensohn said, "We look forward to the Feb. 12 visit as another clarification in the role of your country."

Tymoshenko is expected to visit Moscow in a few days to lay the foundation for Yushchenko's trip.

Yushchenko sharply defended Ukraine's desire to join NATO, a move strongly opposed by Russia. "We do not need anybody's authorization, agreement or their 'yes' or 'no,'" he said. "This is not against any country. It is a reflection of our national interests."

The president touted Ukraine's plans to privatize Ukrtelecom and stakes in around a dozen other enterprises this year, and he called on banks and consulting firms to bring their expertise to the table to ensure the sales' success. "We need partners," he said.

He also said Ukraine would like to float 10 companies on the New York Stock Exchange this year.

Yushchenko won a ringing endorsement from Jean Lemierre, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. "Ukraine has a sound economy from a business viewpoint," he said, identifying the key benefits of doing business there as cheap energy and cheap labor.

He cautioned that the benefits would not last forever and said the main bottleneck to economic growth remained a lack of infrastructure.

Still, Lemierre praised the latest privatization plans and said foreign investors had "a huge appetite" for Ukrainian assets.

Among the hungry investors is Michael White, head of PepsiCo International, who first visited Ukraine as a college student in the 1970s. White said he was impressed with how much the country has changed and said Pepsi was putting its money where its mouth was, purchasing a local juice company, Sandora, for $542 million last year and switching from Malaysian palm oil to local sunflower oil at its regional potato-chip plant.

Fred Bergsten, a U.S. economist and co-founder of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, also gave Ukraine's economy high marks, saying robust emerging markets like Ukraine provided guarantees that the U.S. financial crisis would not spread across the entire world. "There will not be -- I repeat -- there will not be a world recession," he said.

Bergsten applauded Ukraine's march toward the WTO and said its accession would place it in a better position to defend its trade interests -- particularly against a growing threat of trade protectionism as EU countries consider ways to avoid economic fallout from the United States. The EU is Ukraine's biggest trade partner.

"It is important ... that Ukraine is about to join the WTO," Bergsten said.

Ukraine, Russia and Iran are the biggest countries outside the WTO. Russia has been trying to join for more than a decade, and European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said in Geneva on Friday that he hoped Russia would enter the trade body this year, Reuters reported.

At the lunch, Yushchenko conceded that he had a way to go to reach his goal of "bringing Ukraine back to Europe." But he said his government was taking the right steps by, among other things, creating a new state agency to fight corruption among civil servants and ensure fair parliamentary elections. He noted that the vote last fall was the first in Ukraine's history to be declared democratic by international observers.

"Ukraine is a young democracy, and one has to go to the first grade, then to the fifth grade, and then to graduate," Yushchenko said.

The Ukrainian lunch at Davos, now in its fourth year, was hosted by Viktor Pinchuk, the billionaire son-in-law of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. The Ukrainian-themed menu included hors d'oeuvres made with slabs of salo, followed by bowls of dark-red borshch smothered in sour cream, honey-marinated beef stuffed with prunes and apples, and cherry vareniki for dessert.

(The Moscow Times 28.i.08)