BRUSSELS -- Russia today moved one step closer in its long-standing bid to join the World Trade Organization, with the signing of an accord with the European Union.
The memorandum of understanding, signed on the sidelines of today's Russia-EU summit in Brussels, removes one of the last major obstacles in Moscow's nearly two-decade long bid to join the world trade body.
At the summit, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will meet EU leaders, including the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso,
Moscow prepared the ground by announcing last month that it is ready to gradually eliminate export tariffs on certain raw materials such as timber, which had long been opposed by EU member Finland.
Russia is the world’s biggest economy not already a member of the WTO. Moscow hopes the accord with the EU will facilitate Russia’s admission in the international body as soon as next year -- a goal Barroso said today was "realistic."
The Russian president arrived in Brussels after a state visit to Poland aimed at cementing an improvement in relations between the two countries and making Poland an ally of Russia inside the EU.
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski on December 6 threw his weight behind Moscow's WTO accession, saying it would "serve to enliven economic cooperation" between Russia and Poland as well as other EU states.
Today's summit also comes after Russia and the United States in October resolved some long-standing differences that had held up Russia's WTO bid.
Still, some stumbling blocks remain, including long-standing objections from WTO member Georgia on the grounds that Moscow supports the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Niko Mchedlishvili, a spokesman for Georgian Prime Minister Nika
Gilauri, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service today Tbilisi's position had not changed.
"Georgia demands what it demanded a month ago, two months ago, or two years ago," Mchedlishvili said. "It is to legitimize customs and border checkpoints on the Psou River [in Abkhazia] and at the Roki Tunnel [in the Tskhinvali region]. This only demand that we have remains on the agenda and Georgia has not changed its position. At this point, Georgia will not support Russia's accession to the WTO."
Aside from trade, today's Russia-EU talks will also cover the long-running issue of Russia’s request for visa-free access to the EU.
On November 22, at an EU-Ukraine summit in Brussels, the EU announced an "action plan" of efforts Kyiv must make to win visa-free travel for Ukrainians.
Moscow would like the EU to lift its visa obligation for Russian citizens, but this is unlikely to happen in the near future, according to Russia expert Michael Emerson, associate senior research fellow with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels.
“I don’t expect much on that, because there are fundamental problems over visa-free access, which would, if granted, include visa-free access to the entire population of the North Caucasus and Chechnya, which might pose some problems for our interior ministers,” Emerson says.
An announcement is expected today on one recent proposal -- that any Russian citizen who has been granted a full EU visa twice without abusing it by overstaying should become eligible for a five-year multi-entry visa.
Medvedev will be accompanied to Brussels by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and by the minister for trade and economic development, Elvira Nabiullina.