EU opens WTO door to Russia in 'milestone' deal
The European Union backed Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization in a "milestone" deal Tuesday that finally opens the door to Moscow's accession in 2011 after 17 years of negotiations.
The last major world power still outside the global trade body, Russia cleared a crucial hurdle by finalising a deal with the world's largest open trading block as President Dmitry Medvedev flew in for a summit with EU leaders.
"We have achieved a breakthrough in Russia's WTO accesion," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said ahead of Tuesday's summit talks with Medvedev and EU President Herman Van Rompuy.
"This is really a milestone. Our difficult bilateral issues are resolved. We signed a memorandum of understanding to this end today," Barroso added.
The agreement settled the last trade sticking-points between the two sides after a compromise on tariff barriers reached November 24 that needed last-minute ironing-out.
Medvedev made no statement on arrival but was to join a news conference at around 1600 GMT.
Barroso said Russia's hope for accession as early as next year "is a realistic perspective."
Entry into the Geneva-based body, he added, "will strengthen trade rules and investment in Russia and will be beneficial to its businesses and citizens."
Moscow, which complains it has had to negotiate longer than anyone else, in October also won US backing for accession.
Talks between the two sides still need to overcome remaining obstacles however, including Russian tariff hikes on European meat imports and overflight charges levied against European planes for the right to pass over Siberia.
Moscow has pledged to drop the levies -- estimated by analysts at up to 400 million dollars annually -- as soon as it joins the WTO but the EU says the issue is not linked and that Russia pledged to end the Soviet-era system earlier.
And while European businesses complain of administrative problems in setting up shop or investing in Russia, Russian firms also find fault with what they say is EU protectionism.
The issue of visas for Russians is also likely to come up but may not be resolved in the immediate future, with the 27-nation bloc pushing for tighter Russian border and passport controls.
Held during the Cancun climate talks and a resumption of the long-stalled Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, the two sides are also expected to address these questions.
Moscow in general has been more inclined to put the onus on its bilateral dealings with the 27 EU states rather than on signing accords with the bloc as a whole. Medvedev will go on to hold separate talks with Belgium on Wednesday.
"The EU is not a super-state, it's not a federation, it's still 27 countries," said Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizov.
The Brussels summit however should provide a stage to celebrate a new era of warmer ties between Russia and the West as signalled at last month's NATO summit in Lisbon.
Medvedev symbolically flies into Brussels from a historic visit to former Soviet-era satellite nation Poland, the first by a Russian head of state in nine years.
"The visit to Poland clearly had a positive impact on our relations," Medvedev said on Twitter.
"On to the Brussels summit devoted to economic modernisation and visas."
European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fuele said: "We need to recognize that the pyschological process of reconciliation following the Cold War has to run its course.
"Recent Polish-Russian efforts in this respect are of crucial relevance here and I hope further progress will also be possible between Russia and its other neighbours."
© 2010 AFP