Russia moves closer to joining WTO

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The European Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, has said that the "good progress" in talks between the World Trade Organisation and Russia could result in the last remaining large world economy outside the WTO joining the free-trade club this year. Mr Mandelson said in a statement that "with political will on both sides, I believe that negotiations can be completed quickly".

Speaking before he left for Moscow for talks with the Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, Mr Mandelson's spokesman reported a constructive meeting between the European Commissioner and Mr Kudrin during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. "We want to welcome the signal from Moscow that WTO membership in 2008 is a priority. The EU will do all it can to see this achieved".

If the bilateral talks between Russia and the EU are successful, Russia will still have to reach accords with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Georgia, as the WTO's constitution in effect gives all of its member states a veto, at least formally.

Russia's relations with Georgia have been strained in recent years, with trade sanctions, energy price increases and suspension of gas supplies by the Russians, matched by hostile rhetoric from Tbilisi and demands for supervision of customs around the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

However, having concluded an agreement with the US and, perhaps soon, the EU, Russian accession to the WTO would be in effect completed. When that is done, Mr Mandelson's spokesman indicated, the EU would seek a full free trade treaty with Russia, following the recent path taken by the Ukraine.

Mr Mandelson will be seeking to finalise agreement on the relatively few outstanding issues between the two parties, such as duties on wood exports, which especially affect EU member Finland, rail cargo transit tariffs and Siberian overflights by EU airlines.

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