US says close to WTO deal with Russia

Updated: 2006-10-31 09:02

Washington - The United States and Russia are close to a deal on Moscow's 13-year-old bid to join the World Trade Organization, officials said on Monday.

"The finish line is in sight," said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the US Trade Representative's office.

"We believe that we are close to resolving all remaining issues in the bilateral (deal) and both sides are now in the process of consultations," Spicer said.

A deal with the United States would eliminate one of the biggest remaining hurdles to Russia's WTO entry. However, Moscow must still strike a multilateral accord with all 149 member countries, covering thorny issues such as protecting intellectual property rights.

Russia is the largest and most populous country still outside the WTO. Its membership would be a major milestone in its transition from a communist to a market-based economy, and significantly expand the geographic scope of the Geneva-based world trade body.

Washington's goal is to finalize the "bilateral agreement as soon as possible, after which time we will concentrate on the issues that will need to be addressed in the multilateral negotiations to complete the accession process," Spicer said.

Failure in July

The latest talks followed a failed effort to reach a deal before the Group of Eight summit meeting in St. Petersburg in July. After that, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin set a goal of finishing in October.

An agreement would give the two leaders something to celebrate when they attend the annual APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit meeting in Hanoi in mid-November.

Putin was furious when the two sides failed to wrap up a trade deal in St. Petersburg, and the climate between Moscow and Washington has grown chillier since.

Russia has snubbed the United States by saying it will develop its Shtokman gas field -- with enough reserves to supply the world for a year -- without the help of big US energy firms. An escalation in tensions between Russia and ex-Soviet Georgia, a US ally and WTO member, could also derail Moscow's bid to join the trade group.

Russia's chief WTO negotiator, Maxim Medvedkov, has returned to Moscow after intensive negotiations in Washington last week. He will remain in contact with his US counterparts by telephone, Moscow officials said.

A spokeswoman for Russia's Economy and Trade Ministry declined to elaborate on the state of the talks, citing an agreement by both sides not to comment.

Separately, the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia said executives from 13 US blue-chip companies, including Ford and Boeing, had written to Bush and Putin urging them to wrap up a deal. Medvedkov said the letter showed a majority of US businesses wanted Russia to join the trade club.

"It's a signal that reflects the genuine attitude of American business toward our accession to the WTO," he said in Monday's edition of the Kommersant daily. Adding that the letter's signatories included heads of banks and financial services companies, he said: "These are big companies that account for a large share of trade and investment."