John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Key lines up talks with Putin

Vladimir Putin. Photo / AP
Vladimir Putin. Photo / AP

Prime Minister John Key has secured a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at this weekend's summit of Apec economies in Russia.

The Russian Embassy in Wellington yesterday confirmed that Mr Key and Mr Putin would have a bilateral meeting on the fringes of the main conference agenda. The embassy also said it was Russia's "firm intention" to complete what have been stalled negotiations of a Russia-New Zealand free trade agreement by the end of the year.

Russia surprised many in the trade world two years ago in agreeing to a suggestion from Trade Minister Tim Groser that the two countries hammer out a free trade deal which will be the first of its kind for Russia.

Although New Zealand exports to Russia totalled less than $300 million last year, Wellington has argued that an FTA is in both countries' strategic economic interest.

When negotiations began, Russia was still seeking membership of the World Trade Organisation.

An FTA would have provided evidence that Russia could play by WTO rules and start policing its trade rather than continuing what has been a "wild west" attitude to such things as copyright, piracy and dodgy food standards. In turn, New Zealand would be able to capitalise on the demand for new products among Russia's burgeoning middle class.

However, Russia' s accession to the WTO - finally completed this month after an 18-year struggle - has been unpopular domestically because of accompanying cuts in subsidies.

This had sapped Russian political will for free trade initiatives, resulting in the talks with New Zealand running into difficulties with Moscow worried about low-cost New Zealand agricultural products squeezing out local farmers.

New Zealand ministers were therefore not confident a deal would be reached.

However, Russian authorities may have judged that an FTA would send a strong signal Russia is open for business and investment.

- NZ Herald

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