Georgia aims to cash in on Russian trade

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 25, 2012 


Coca-Cola Freestyle drink machine in the kitchen at the Sandy Springs, Georgia location, operated by touch screen,

BRANT SANDERLIN — Atlanta-Journal Constitution/MCT

— Few states are as eager to increase trade with Russia as Georgia, the home of corporate giants Coca-Cola Co. and Delta Air Lines and more than 3,600 international facilities from 60 countries.

The state’s exports to Russia jumped 55 percent last year alone, with Georgia ranking sixth overall among all U.S. states, according to the Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade, a group that’s lobbying for the trade agreement.

When the U.S.-Russia Business Council went to Atlanta this week for its 20th annual meeting, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal explained why the state is primed to do even better in coming years: larger ships moving through the Panama Canal to the expanded Port of Savannah, a two-hour flight range to more than 80 percent of the U.S. market, and a general “pro-business attitude.”

But like many other trade backers, Deal is frustrated that a proposed permanent trade agreement with Russia is stalled in Congress.

As a result, U.S. traders cannot expand business in the ninth-largest economy in the world and take advantage of Russia’s recent entry into the World Trade Organization, which came this summer after 18 years of negotiations.

Deal and others say that’s giving a big advantage to the more than 150 other countries that belong to the WTO and can now export more goods to the 140 million consumers in Russia.

“Our competitors in Europe, China and elsewhere might as well thank us for our absence,” Deal said Tuesday in the keynote address to the trade group, according to a transcript.

Deal is among a bipartisan group of 15 governors – including Democrats Jerry Brown of California and Chris Gregoire of Washington and Republicans Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Phil Bryant of Mississippi – urging President Barack Obama and Congress to quickly approve the pact, saying it could double U.S. exports to Russia from $11 billion in 2011 to $22 billion in 2017.

“Trade is important in Georgia, just as it is to this country, and I think increasingly our governor and people of the state recognize that we’ve got to do business around the world – and Russia is a big market where we’d like to be present,” said Gary Bertsch, the founding director of the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia. Now a professor emeritus, he led the center for 22 years, through 2009.

Only five states topped Georgia, the nation’s ninth-most populous state with nearly 10 million people, in exporting goods to Russia last year: Texas ranked first, followed by Illinois, California, New York and Washington, according to the Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade.

Transportation equipment ranked as the state’s No. 1 export to Russia last year. AGCO Corp., based in Duluth, Ga., is the world’s third-largest manufacturer of tractors and other farm equipment. It supplies equipment to manufacturing plants throughout Russia, according to the Coalition for U.S.-Russia Trade.

Large amounts of chemicals, wood products, machinery and electrical equipment also have found their way from Georgia to Russia. And Russia has been a growing market for Georgia nut exporters.

Russians also have shown a particular fondness for Coca-Cola beverages, with per-capita consumption increasing from 12 servings in 1999 to 59 servings in 2009, the coalition said.

While the trade agreement has won bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill, congressional leaders so far have not allowed a final vote. Supporters hope it will be approved when members of Congress return to Washington for its lame-duck session after Election Day. Obama supports the deal.

The stalled pact is partly the result of election-year politics and worries that Russia has not done enough to improve its record on human rights.

The environmental group Friends of the Earth opposes the deal, saying the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin “must not be rewarded” for its record on the environment, trade and human rights. And U.S. steelworkers say the pact would do nothing to open the Russian market to more U.S. cars but would make it easier for U.S. automakers to move assembly facilities to Russia.

Earlier this year, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Russia the United States’ top geopolitical foe. Romney supports the trade pact, but only if it’s tied to a plan to address human rights.

Bertsch said that Georgia, like many other U.S. states, is doing “everything it can” to boost exports and that Russia’s human-rights record is not a dominant issue.

“I don’t think that’s a big concern in Georgia,” he said. “I think economic issues are coming first.”

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