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EU backs Russia’s accession to WTO

The 26th Russia-EU summit kicked off in Brussels with a major breakthrough when the European Union officially agreed to Moscow’s WTO membership.

On the first day of the Russia-EU summit, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso held a joint press conference outlining the main achievements in bilateral relations over the past year.

All three have hailed significant progress, putting special emphasis on Russia’s WTO accession talks.

“The EU and Russia have taken important positive steps regarding our bilateral relationship,” Van Rompuy said. “I am particularly rejoiced by the fact that the European Union and Russia have concluded negotiations on the WTO.”

Barroso added that Russia could see its actual membership in the World Trade Organization as early as 2011. Russia has been trying to join the WTO for 17 years and only recently there have been signals from its European partners and other organization members that this might soon happen.

Fred Weir, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor, believes the EU needs Russia particularly now that it is facing financial troubles. That is one of the reasons, he says, for the positive development in the WTO talks.

“I think the troubles in Europe is one of the reasons why they are reaching out to Russia now a little bit more energetically than they did in years past,”  Weir told RT. “They know they’ve got problems. And they know if they get Moscow on their side, Russia – which does have a relatively stable economy and sound finances – may be more helpful on the inside than on the outside.”

Medvedev specifically pointed out Russia’s modernization partnership initiative. The agreement was signed during the last summit in Russia’s Rostov-on-Don. It is aimed at modernizing bilateral relations and also getting the EU to help Russia modernize its economy, industry and social sectors, by combining European experience and Russian resources.

The Russian leader also spoke about moving toward a visa-free space.

“We are aware of two things: first, there should not be any visas for our sides; second, this should not unbalance the situation in the European Union,” he said.

Barroso, for his part, affirmed that great progress had taken place in the talks on a visa-free regime.

­Political analyst Fraser Cameron says it is difficult to judge how long the actual implementation of a visa-free regime will take, since both technical and political issues need to first be settled.

“It depends very much on how quickly Russia can be up to technical standards – the biometric passports, software compatible with Shengen computers, etc,” he argued. “And politically this has to be done in step with visa liberalization for Ukraine and other countries in the region.”

Energy issues have been a point of discord between Russia and the EU for several years now. And gas supplies to Europe are, of course, a matter of great concern for Europeans, and the issue was unsurprisingly raised by a journalist during the Q & A session.

“The best guarantee [for uninterrupted energy supplies to Europe] is the money paid for the gas delivered,” replied Medvedev. “So if there’s money, there’s gas.”

The Russia-EU summit will continue on Wednesday. The members of the summit are going to deliberate on Moscow’s proposal to build a unified anti-missile defense system between Russia, the EU and the US. The proposal was put forward by Medvedev at the Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon in November.

Other issues, including the environment, freedom and justice, security and crisis management, will also be addressed.