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Soviets Apply to Join Global Trade Talks

August 21, 1986|From Times Wire Services

GENEVA — The Soviet Union has asked to join in a new round of world trade talks and has signaled an apparent desire to join the 91-member General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, trade officials said here Wednesday.

In its request, Moscow told GATT that it plans changes in its foreign trade system and a reorganization of its economy in general, said a spokeswoman for the global trade regulatory body.

It said that participation in trade negotiations would help it "gain the experience required to arrive at a decision on accession" to the trade organization itself, spokeswoman Lilliane Rastelo said.

'Bombshell' Seen

One GATT official said privately that the request is "a bombshell indicating major changes in Soviet policy" and an effort by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to revamp his nation's economy so that it can participate in the trade bloc.

The Soviet Union is the only major trading nation outside GATT, whose 91 "contracting parties" or members account for around 85% of total world trade. Mexico has signed the "protocol of accession" and will become GATT's 92nd member later this month. China last month formally requested membership in the group.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, established in 1948, is an agency of the United Nations. Its members are pledged to reduce tariffs and other barriers to international trade and to eliminate discriminatory treatment in international commerce.

GATT officials said the Soviet request to take part in the new round of talks will be considered by ministers in Punta del Este, Uruguay, where the forthcoming session will be held starting Sept. 15. Later negotiations will take place in Geneva and are expected to last four or five years.

For years, Moscow called GATT "an instrument of Western economic imperialism"--an attitude that the GATT official said has obviously been dropped by Gorbachev.

Moscow has indicated in recent months that it was interested in the world trade group. In March, Mikhail Pankin, a Soviet trade official, told a news conference in Geneva that his country has been conducting "unofficial soundings" since the end of 1982 with GATT officials and member states on becoming an observer.

Interest in Talks

Pankin said the Soviet Union was closely following the preparatory talks for the new round of negotiations and indicated that his country might also be interested in participatory role.

Moscow's private soundings, however, have met with negative reactions from the United States and other Western nations, which fear that Soviet membership would politicize GATT and cause major problems because of Moscow's centrally planned economic system.

"The question is whether a country can be an observer when it is not engaged in the principles of GATT," a West German official said recently, referring to the Soviet economy's centrally-planned nature.

GATT Director General Arthur Dunkel of Switzerland told member nations of the Soviet request to participate in the talks in a one-page letter given to the organization's secretariat last week, the agency spokeswoman said.

Expansion of Trade

The Soviets said they want to "expand trade" with GATT members. The agency also noted "prospective changes in the Soviet foreign trade mechanism in line with the ongoing reorganization of the management of the Soviet national economy."

Several smaller Communist countries like Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Poland belong to GATT.

Because Communist nations do not have the same system of import tariffs as other countries, East Bloc states have to pledge themselves to fixed annual increases in imports in return for easier access to foreign markets for their own goods.

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