Russian pirates and the new Cold War

Is keeping Russia out of the WTO?

Published October 5, 2006 8:43PM (EDT)

Russia wants to join the World Trade Organization. The United States wants Russia to join the World Trade Organization. But there's a little problem. There's this Web site, you see, called, that allows people all over the world to buy copyrighted music for mere pennies. It's a big deal. Russia is by far the largest economy in the world that isn't a member of the WTO. But unless Vladimir Putin orders a real crackdown on this "notorious" "poster boy" for intellectual property piracy, it can kiss its WTO bid goodbye. Or so Susan Schwab, the U.S. trade representative, and her deputy, Karan Bhatia, have been saying to all and sundry lately.

" So far, the Russian authorities have allowed this site to operate with impunity," Schwab told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week. "We have made clear to Russia that improved protection for intellectual property is critical to its joining the WTO and we have specifically raised our concerns with"

Gee, the Cold War just ain't what it used to be. Once upon a time, U.S. government officials railed against the godless "evil empire" of the Soviet Union. Ordinary Americans lived in daily fear of nuclear annihilation. But today, our leaders shake their fists in rage because penny-pinching music fans can buy online Yo La Tengo's new album, "I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass," for $3.18 from a shady operation that is physically located in the former Soviet Union but appears to be operated by offshore Russian money headquartered in Cyprus.)

(Folks, you can't make this stuff up. Well, I don't know, maybe Bruce Sterling or William Gibson or Thomas Pynchon could cook up something equally loopy, but me, I'm just reporting the facts.)

Oh sure, the U.S. has other demands besides its request that be consigned to the dustbin of digital history. The U.S. fertilizer industry says that the artificially low price of natural gas in Russia is an unfair subsidy to Russian fertilizer manufacturers. American pork and poultry exporters chafe at the limitations of Russian meat import quotas and are suspicious that Russian inspection requirements are just a scam to keep out American product. And there are a host of other demands -- liberalization of the insurance industry, banking, etc. You gotta jump through a lot of hoops if you want to join the WTO club, and Russia is getting a bit grouchy at the required contortions.

For its part, Russia is also frustrated that it is still subject to a Cold War relic called the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was part of the Trade Act of 1974 and prohibits the establishment of "normal trading relations" with nations that don't allow free emigration. The amendment was specifically aimed at helping Jews get out of the Soviet Union. But even though Jews have had no trouble leaving Russia for quite some time, the U.S. still hasn't allowed Russia to "graduate" from Jackson-Vanik. It's just one more piece of leverage to twist Russia's arm with.

You have to wonder. You look at all the galling concessions a country must make to qualify for the WTO, which from some angles sure looks like nothing less than a capitulation of sovereignty to triumphant corporate capitalism, and you gotta ask if it's really worth it. Given the discontent expressed by so many developing nations with how the WTO has worked out for them, given the fact that the U.S. and the E.U. still keep in place huge subsidies of their own even as they complain about everything every other country is doing to support their domestic industries, the question seems to be at least worth asking.

Then I ran into this snippet of a speech Putin gave to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation in 2002.

"Tight competition is a norm in the international community and in the modern world, competition for markets, investments, economic and political influence."

"Russia must be strong and competitive in this fight. The world market is already here and our market has become part of the system..."

"The WTO is an instrument. He who knows how to use it grows stronger; he who prefers to sit behind a fence of protectionist quotas, and duties -- he is doomed, absolutely doomed strategically."

Yes, comrades, the Cold War really is over. Except for that pirated music thing. That's still pretty chilly.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works Intellectual Property Russia