Talks on Russia’s application to join the World Trade Organization are making solid progress, and will likely be completed late next year, Russia’s chief negotiator said. Maxim Medvedkov said Russia’s chances have been boosted by a series of trade deals with key members of the 148-nation WTO. Such individual accords help smooth multi-government talks on membership of the body that sets rules on international trade.

“We are now moving to a more profound stage in multilateral negotiations,” Medvedkov told reporters following a WTO meeting on Russian membership. “It’s quite possible to seek completion of multilateral work by later next year.

We understand we have some difficulties to solve,” Medvedkov added. “We are very much committed to this process.”

Russia first applied to join the WTO in June 1993, but the country only started making major efforts to fulfill the conditions of membership when President Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999. The earliest date for membership is likely January 2006. To satisfy existing members of the trade body, the Russians have had to embark on a major set of legislative reforms to fall in line with WTO rules, including producing a new customs code.

Key sticking points have included limits on foreign ownership in the telecommunications and life-insurance businesses. Many WTO members also dislike Russia’s energy price subsidies which competitors say give Russian businesses an unfair advantage in global trade, as well as its use of tariffs to protect farmers and aircraft manufacturers. Medvedkov said Russia’s aircraft sector needed more time to adjust before it could compete with overseas manufacturers, but Russia is ready to drop tariffs on other industrial goods to six-eight percent. This is substantially lower than the 16.7% duties Russia had in place when it first applied to join the WTO a decade ago, he noted. “That’s a very, very serious signal and a contribution to the liberalization of trade,” he said. “I think it’s the price of the entry ticket (to the WTO).”

Concerns also have focused on what critics say are lax rules on counterfeiting and piracy, lack of enforcement of data protection laws and the poor protection of commercial secrets. Each of the WTO’s members has the right to seek its own trade deal before approving membership. Under WTO rules, the bilateral deals negotiated by individual members eventually are consolidated so that all members trade with Russia under the same conditions. Russia has signed an agreement with the European Union - its main trade partner - and completed talks on an accord with China. It has clinched around 20 other accords, said Medvedkov.

Russia is still talking with the US, and expects to reach a deal by April, he said. Medvedkov said deals also are set to be signed in coming days with a handful of countries at a summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. Russia is a member of the 21-nation Pacific Rim grouping. (News Provided by COMTEX)