BRUSSELS -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and leaders of the European Union have reached an agreement for the EU to lend its support to Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Earlier this year Russia achieved the backing of the United States for its bid, leaving the EU as the biggest obstacle.
Speaking after the meeting, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said talks would now move to a multilateral phase with all WTO members and that "Russia becoming a WTO member in 2011 is now a very realistic prospect."
Barroso said the breakthrough should have a positive impact on ongoing negotiations for a new EU-Russia agreement.
When asked whether Russia's membership in a planned common customs union with its Central Asian neighbors and Belarus would present an impediment to its joining as a single entity, both Barroso and Medvedev insisted it would not.
Such a union is being planned for the Eurasian Economic Community, a collection of former Soviet states.Visa-Free 'Road Map'
The leaders also reported some progress on talks toward a visa-waiver agreement for travelers between Russia and EU member states. Ministers agreed a road map on how to work toward that goal.
Russia has been eager to work out such an agreement, but EU leaders have been slow to move on the issue.
"We are not saying we are going to have a visa-free regime soon, we are saying we have established and we have agreed on the process to reach it," Barroso said after the meeting, adding that "this is of course a very sensitive issue."
The EU has to get the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states, and some have expressed unease about the arrangement. But Barroso stressed that such an arrangement would be in the interest of European citizens as well as Russian citizens.'Concrete Development'
The EU leaders said that they hoped the breakthrough on WTO accession would accelerate talks in other areas, particularly on constructing an updated EU-Russia agreement or the Partnership for Modernization, which was launched in May
Oksana Antonenko, program director for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the WTO agreement will have important symbolic value for both sides.
"It's a concrete development, it's much easier to measure than any progress on the Partnership for Modernization, which remains relatively vague," she says. "But I don't think the WTO agreement will have any bearing on the speed in which the visa-free regime will come, that's still a few years away because there's no consensus within the EU."
Several EU states that neighbor Russia are concerned that canceling visa requirements would result in a flood of migrants or security issues.
There are also tactical reasons for the slow pace. "The EU still wants to use this visa issue as a leverage over Russia to continue to get things that the EU wants to get, such as more progress on energy security," Antonenko says.
She adds that the fact that the Georgia issue remains unresolved makes things more difficult. Russia still militarily occupies the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia after it sent troops into the area in 2008. Russia has recognized the independence of the territory along with another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, while most Western countries have not.
Speaking after the summit, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said a solution for the area needed to be found that respects the "territorial integrity and sovereignty" of Georgia.