Ukraine signed a trade agreement with ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan to eliminate one of the final hurdles to membership of the World Trade Organization 14 years after launching negotiations.

“Today in Bishkek, a bilateral protocol was signed on mutual access to markets, vital for Ukraine gaining entry to the WTO,” a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s economy ministry said by telephone.

Ukrainian officials have been holding talks for several days in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, which borders China.

Kyrgyzstan was the last country among WTO’s 151 members to clinch a bilateral trade deal with Ukraine. It had long withheld its signature pending resolution of what it said was a $27 million debt dating from Soviet times.

Ukraine had refused to acknowledge the debt but the cabinet agreed on Wednesday to extend Kyrgyzstan earthquake relief aid equal to the same sum.

Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko promised to gain WTO membership within a year of taking office in 2005 after the pro-Western “Orange Revolution,” part of measures to move Ukraine closer to the West.

Parliament passed several laws in recent months to comply with WTO rules but the entry date has been repeatedly put back.

Two weeks ago the government acknowledged that formalities could not be completed until late 2008 at the earliest.

A WTO working group must now prepare documents setting Ukraine’s obligations in terms of tariffs and market access and limiting farm subsidies.

Ukraine’s road to membership may be further complicated because the European Union has said it needs to resolve issues relating to its bilateral agreement with Kiev.

Ukraine and the EU say WTO membership would open the door to a free trade agreement. (Reuters)