US-RUSSIAN BUSINESS ACCORDS APPEAR IMMINENT

US-RUSSIAN BUSINESS ACCORDS APPEAR IMMINENT

Two new U.S.-Russian government initiatives that are likely to spur trade and investment between the two countries are close to being signed, U.S. and Russian officials said.

The two governments will sign an agreement this month that would enable the Overseas Private Investment Corp., a U.S. agency, to insure U.S. investors in Russia against such political risks as expropriation, currency inconvertibility and war, revolution and civil strife.More than 300 U.S. companies have already notified OPIC of their interest in receiving insurance in the former Soviet Union, primarily in Russia. The possible investments involved total about $3.5 billion.

Meanwhile, a U.S.-Russian trade agreement may be imminent. Vladimir Lukin, the new Russian ambassador to the United States, said Thursday that the Russian Supreme Soviet may approve such an accord within the next few weeks.

The agreement would be the same as the one the United States negotiated with the now-defunct Soviet Union in 1990 and approved last November by the U.S. Congress.

It would pare sharply U.S. import duties on most Russian products by extending Russia "most-favored-nation" trade treatment. The agreement would commit Russia to provide local business facilities for U.S. companies and to honor U.S. patents, copyrights and trademarks.

U.S. officials hope identical trade agreements and investment accords will be signed this year with a number of other former Soviet republics.

A Bush administration team, led by the U.S. trade representative's office, is due shortly to visit the republics to explain to government leaders the benefits of a trade pact with the United States.

The administration is offering each republic the opportunity to sign on to the 1990 U.S.-Soviet trade agreement. To bring the agreement into force, a republic's legislature would have to ratify it. No further congressional action here would be required.

The Overseas Private Investment Corp. expects that other former Soviet republics besides Russia will soon reach similar accords. OPIC is negotiating agreements with all the republics except Georgia, said Daven Oswalt, OPIC's director of public affairs.

Those agreements, officials say, could help overcome what Ambassador Lukin called the "problem" of many American firms' reluctance to take risks in the former Soviet Union. Unless U.S. companies step up their investment, he said, German firms may dominate in the region's west and Japanese companies in the region's east.

Trade pacts with the former Soviet republics may not trigger any quick increase in U.S. trade, except for vodka, cotton fabric, fiberboard and caviar, according to Kathryn Wittneber, author of a new report, "Competing for Soviet Business," released by the American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations.

But it could encourage more U.S. companies to set up joint ventures in the former Soviet Union, especially in products that might be exported to the United States, she and other analysts said.

Still, some business spokesmen maintain, the United States could do more to help facilitate trade with Russia and other republics.

The U.S. government, claimed the National Association of Manufacturers, has an "apparent unwillingness to abandon old ways of thinking."

The prospective trade agreements, it noted, will include "Jackson-Vanik" provisions, dating back to 1974, by which Congress may undertake annual reviews of the republics' emigration policies.

It's a "perpetuation of the instinct to use trade as a diplomatic lever," said Howard Lewis, an NAM vice president. It will only discourage companies

from venturing into the republics, he warned.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Export-Import Bank hopes to sign shortly its first loan guarantees helping finance U.S. exports to Russia. So far, eight guarantees totaling $172 million have been cleared by the bank's board, but the bank is still dickering with Russian authorities on who will be the Russian guarantor.