The Accession of Kazakhstan: Dealing with Complexity

The negotiations on the accession of Kazakhstan to the World Trade Organization (WTO), concluded in 2015, were unique in the history of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the WTO. This uniqueness was reflected in: (i) the complexity of the accession due to its technical substance and geopolitical aspects; (ii) the significant expansion of market access achieved in the process, which is unusual in multilateral negotiations; (iii) the resultant update of the rules in line with GATT Article XXIV related to customs unions and free trade areas; and (iv) the unprecedented involvement and dedication of Kazakhstan’s officials, guided by President Nazarbayev, of WTO members and the WTO Secretariat, and personally of WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo. The negotiations were essentially a moving target, as they took place at the same time as the Customs Union between Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation was evolving into the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The critical elements of the accession were Kazakhstan’s commitments on technical barriers to trade (TBT), sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS) and on market access for goods – essentially, the behind-the-border issues. Notwithstanding the complexities and the bilateral and regional mechanics of the negotiations, the Kazakh case demonstrates that the WTO accession process has had practical utility even in a geopolitically challenging and technically complex environment. Accessions continue to contribute to the strategic objective of a universal membership by updating trade rules, encouraging market access expansion and strengthening the rule of law. The accession of Kazakhstan thus confirms the WTO’s relevance in an ever more complex global economic and trade policy environment.

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