Russia eyes WTO breakthrough at EU summit

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and European Union leaders hope to open the way for Moscow's entry into the WTO next year at a summit Tuesday, while giving fresh impetus to their warming ties.

The last major world power still outside the Geneva-based world trade body, Russia "expects to sign a protocol agreement" with EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, said Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizov.

"The summit is extremely important," added Kremlin diplomatic advisor Sergei Prikhodko, "as I hope we'll be able to finalise long, difficult, tiring work on questions relating to an agreement on Russia's entry into the WTO."

Moscow in October won US backing for accession to the World Trade Organization and is looking for membership in 2011 but complains the country has negotiated longer than anyone after 17 years.

Delivering a message of reassurance on the eve of the one-day talks, EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said "we are making great strides towards the WTO accession of Russia. I am confident that the EU-Russia summit will confirm this."

The two sides struck a compromise deal ahead of the hoped-for protocol in late November, agreeing on mutual tariff cuts. But a European diplomat said unresolved problems remained, including Russian tariff hikes on European meat imports.

Overflight charges levied against European planes for the right to pass over Siberia are another sticking-point. Analysts estimate the annual royalties at up to 400 million dollars.

Moscow has pledged to drop the levies 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.

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. And 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," Chizov said.

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.

"We need to recognize that the pyschological process of reconciliation following the Cold War has to run its course," said Fuele.

"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

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