Belarus wants to join the World Trade Organisation by 2005, the ex-Soviet republic's chief negotiator for accession to the trade body said July 16.
"The situation in the WTO is prompting Belarus to take urgent steps since the organization is currently involved in intensive talks on changing its rules," the official, Anton Kudasov, told the Interfax news agency.
"If we fail to join the WTO in 2005, the results may be unpredictable," he warned.
Belarus is losing $100 million to 150 million a year by being outside the powerful body which sets the global rules for trade, according to the government.
Kudasov said he was worried that once Russia joined the WTO, Minsk would de facto be governed by WTO rules since most of its trade is with its dominant Slav neighbor but would enjoy no rights.
WTO membership is a key objective of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which he hopes to achieve by the end of 2003. The bid has been bolstered recently by U.S. and European Union decisions to recognize Russia as a market economy.
But domestic critics say that Belarus, whose President Alexan-der Lukashenko presides over an isolated regime that has left largely intact the Socialist-style command economy since independence in 1991, has no such prospects.
"If the economic situation stays the same, Belarus won't be able to join the WTO even in 2010. There is no program for transition to a market economy," said former Belarusian Ambassador Mikhail Marinich, who now heads an economic think tank.
"The economy has to start functioning according to market principles, not under a command structure as now," he told AFP.
The Belarusian trade official himself admitted that his country faced major obstacles to joining the WTO, in particular "the bureaucratic approach of heads of enterprises, ministries and agencies" in the country.
According to a World Bank report in January, the economy in Belarus, 10 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, was "one of the least reformed" among the 15 ex-Soviet republics.
By March of this year, 1,098 Belarusian enterprises - nearly half of all companies functioning in the ex-Soviet republic - were unprofitable, according to the statistics Ministry.