Trade pact signed as Western Europe warms to Russia

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The Independent Online
ANDREW MARSHALL

Brussels

Russia yesterday took a series of steps to link it itself more closely with Western organisations. Officials in Brussels said that despite continuing tensions over security matters, many problems of the past year were dissolving.

Russia held discussions with the European Union, Nato and the World Trade Organisation on the same day. But it can realistically hope only to join the last; with the others, it is trying to create a dialogue and make sure it is not excluded.

Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, arrived in Brussels to sign a trade and co-operation pact that has been held up by European concern about Chechnya. It is intended to plug the gap until a more far-reaching agreement can be ratified. The EU had set conditions including the involvement of outside negotiators in Chechnya, and it now deems these to have been met.

It took six months to agree the interim deal and it could be some time before the wider pact is ratified. "It is a long time overdue," Mr Kozyrev said yesterday. "But we welcome this as a step in the right direction."

While the urbane Mr Kozyrev was tying up a deal at one end of Brussels, his equally polished colleague Vitaly Churkin, ambassador to Nato, was at the other end of town holding the first of what is likely to be many meetings with the alliance. The dialogue follows Russia's agreement to implement the Partnership for Peace with Nato. It is intended to lay the ground for a new deal by the end of the year.

Russia used yesterday's meeting to stress its problems with the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, which limits troops and weapons from the Atlantic to the Urals. Russia is concerned that this treaty - signed by the Soviet Union - is overly restrictive, especially in the Caucasus region.

A Russian military expert yesterday laid out ways in which the treaty could be revised. But the West has insisted that it must be implemented this year, and can be discussed again only next year at a scheduled review conference. And it insists that there is sufficient flexibility in the agreement already.

In Geneva, Russia was beginning discussions on membership of the World Trade Organisation. Oleg Davydov, Foreign Trade Minister, had talks with Renato Ruggiero, the WTO Director-General. A working party is preparing a study that could take years but is likely to lead to membership eventually. The central obstacle will be Russia's sluggish economic reforms.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has wooed international organisations it once scorned. But its size, its domestic problems and the gap between Moscow and Western Europe over security have kept it at arms length. Chechnya has kept it out of the Council of Europe, the body intended to group all Europe's democracies.

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