C o m m e n t a r y Russia learns APEC idiom

The APEC, Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation organisation, is having a forum in Mexico's Los Cabos this week. Russia, its fairly new member, will certainly feel at home in the gathering this time.

The APEC has an impressive membership of 21 representing the entire geography of its vast region which stretches from the USA to Brunei. New countries on the big community meet many predicaments. To see the intricate workings of the system is the greatest problem. The matter got even worse after the APEC bureaucrats invented an idiom all their own, abbreviations making the bulk of its vocabulary. Concise glossaries have to be circulated at annual forums to put delegates au courant-not that the booklets are great help to novices.

At the start, a few Foreign Ministry officers were the only Russians to understand the APEC idiom. Now, Russia has acquired its fluent command, literally and metaphorically. It is full-fledged member of an organisation which intends to economically integrate the world's largest area.

Businessmen dominate Russian delegations, though big economic officers are also prominent. They all know that annual forums are only galas, while everyday committee and agency routine is what the APEC is really about. At first, APEC trailblazers worked hard to make the Russian business cast an attentive glance at the organisation. Now, Russia's Big Biz knows the opportunities it offers, and is eager to get involved.

Several years ago, Evgeni Primakov, then Foreign Minister, and his subordinate diplomats coaxed Japan into asking the USA not to thwart Russia's acceptance to the APEC, though the ministry was fully aware that the country did not qualify in a great many respects to join the community. Russia squeezed in just before the APEC determined to suspend membership expansion.

"We've bought a coat two sizes larger, but we're growing," Primakov joked at the Kuala Lumpur forum of autumn 1998, a first APEC gathering with Russian participation. Now, the coat appears to be too small, and all are gratefully referring to Primakov's breakthrough.

Russia attended eight out of a total nine major APEC events between the Shanghai and the Los Cabos forums-more than any year before. It even hosted five. A Moscow innovation and telecommunication forum, and a fruitful investment symposium, complete with trade fair, in Vladivostok were the most spectacular of all. The Vladivostok event gathered 15 out of the 21 APEC member countries, and was tremendous success-suffice it to mention several ambitious investment contracts.

The trade and investment committee is more popular with Russia than any other APEC body-mainly because it is responsible for a part of preparations to admit Russia to the World Trade Organisation. Russia would love an APEC space committee no less if it were established, but the idea has not yet come true despite Russian lobbying. Possibly, it ought to be more dynamic.

There is another idea which Russia never stops advertising since the Auckland forum of 2000. That is regional energy security. Whatever ideas the APEC may debate are sooner or later upgraded to determine national and even regional policies. If energy security gets on that footing, it will give the desired status to lucrative Sakhalin and Kovykta gas projects, and encourage blueprinting work on projects in the making, which Russia-especially its Far East and Siberia-direly needs.

Annual APEC forums are aloof to decision-making. They provide grounds for debates, and lead delegates to an accord. The ideas they advance go to government agencies and private companies to elaborate on. Information about that work is very scanty, to the detriment of the APEC public image.

The organisation came through a great many other problems. Thus, its members heatedly discussed its purposes. That was understandable-it brings together countries big and small, with affluent and developing economies, and their interests naturally differ.

As was general opinion till the present summit, the APEC pursues two pillar ideas. The first implies Pacific trade liberalised, and is advanced by the USA, Canada and Australia. The Bogota declaration of 1994 and the Osaka of a year later called to open Asian and Pacific commodity markets to developed countries by 2010, and to developing ten years later. The advent of the 21st century moved the idea into the background, what with problems it offers not only to developing APEC member countries, Russia among them, but even to prosperous Japan.

Russia joined the APEC thanks to the attraction of the other basic idea-to soften commercial terms through workforce training, technological exchanges, etc., etc., eventually to raise all countries to the leaders' level. The APEC has now recognised that goal for its basic. Whatever differences of opinions are a thing of the past, just as pessimistic evaluations of the community's objectives and prospects. The USA, for one, was extremely sceptical about all ideas except trade liberalising. Now, it is more active than any other member in every field of APEC activities.

That change was largely due to another pillar idea appearing between last year's forum and the present. That is the anti-terror cause. An anti-terror declaration was viewed as mere formality even at the latest, Shanghai forum-mainly because the community heatedly emphasises that economics are its only concern, and makes it a point to duck off from political debates. Yet terrorism is looming near, and all have grown to see that the danger has to be fought back, or Asia and the Pacific area will never achieve economic prosperity and the APEC will be redundant.

That was understood even before the appalling Bali blasts. Now, it is clearer than ever. Tourism brings an annual US$26 billion to Southeast Asia alone-and there are a great many related industries. So the APEC is extremely serious about the matter, which it regards from the economic point. Thus, Los Cabos conferees will discuss freight checks in ports, information security, computer safety, and all other economic and financial aspects of the anti-terror crusade. All agree with the idea to insure the entire area against terrorism-even countries who cannot afford it singlehanded.

The APEC will surely remain an economic community, despite all. It even refers to its members as "economies", and to Presidents and Prime Ministers as "leaders of economies". It never hoists national flags. Indicatively, a closed-door conference of the 21 national leaders with assistants kept out is not the central event of APEC forums. Civil servants-heads of state included-are mere auxiliaries. The forum has another goal, presidents' meetings with businessmen not merely as equals but the latter for first fiddle.

A business summit is the core of every forum. Such summits gather several hundred managers from leading corporations of the USA, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong-which is an APEC member on its own-and other countries.

The Mexican business summit is scheduled for October 25. Business tycoons called President Vladimir Putin to address the gathering. This is an auspicious time for Russia, whose economy is generally regarded as healthy and rapidly progressing. The forum is the best place for business circles to observe the situation and make conclusions for the future. The fruit of those conclusions will be appreciated later on.

It will be no easier now than before to sum up forum achievements, because they will find a practical form only later, and not necessarily under the APEC aegis. Russia, a vast country, has its specificities in that respect-Moscow and the Pacific coast may take different views of the organisation. The USA shares the problem with us-its east coast attaches far greater importance to the APEC than the west.

All Russians agree on one point, however-the APEC is extremely important for national progress, especially for the country's east.

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