The United States and Russia have agreed to intensify talks on Moscow’s nearly 17-year-old bid to join the World Trade Organization, a U.S. trade official said.

“The participants reviewed the action plan that Russian, U.S. and EU negotiators have developed, and discussed how best to move Russian accession to the finish line,” Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, said after a day of high-level U.S.-Russia talks.

White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers and Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov “agreed that the dialogue at all levels would continue and be intensified. The United States looks forward to Russia becoming a member of the WTO,” Guthrie said.

The renewed push is another sign of improved relations between the two former Cold War enemies.

It also comes nearly a year after Russia threw its bid to join the WTO into confusion by announcing it planned to join as a “customs union” with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The U.S.-Russia talks on Tuesday also included U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Russian Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina.

Shuvalov set the stage for the talks when he told reporters that Russia was dropping its insistence on joining in tandem with its two neighbors. He said Russia wanted to finish its accession process separately while still working on the customs union.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in the Black Sea resort of that the creation of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan was still on track.

“The process of creating a joint customs zone is taking place in strict accordance with our agreements,” Putin said.

The officials meeting in Washington discussed Russia’s plans for the customs union, as well as its implications for the accession process, Guthrie said.

They also reviewed a number of issues that Russia must resolve to complete its bid, Guthrie said. Those include issues about its state-owned enterprises, protection of intellectual property rights, products with encryption and agricultural trade, Guthrie added.

Jewish Emigeration
In another development, U.S. Representative Bill Delahunt said he planned to introduce legislation in the House of Representatives in the coming weeks to remove Russia from the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which still applies to a dwindling number of former Soviet Republics.

That provision, passed in 1974, tied U.S. trade relations with the Soviet Union to the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate freely. Russia has been in compliance since 1994.

Delahunt, a Democrat, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe.

“I think it’s very, very important that we recognize we’re out of compliance with our own law (by not recognizing Russia’s progress) and it would have a very positive impact on our bilateral relationship, which has been moving substantially in a very positive direction,” Delahunt said.

Removing Russia from the Jackson-Vanik amendment would eliminate an irritant in bilateral relations.

Even though Russia has been in compliance for 16 years, many U.S. lawmakers are reluctant to free Russia from the provision because they think it gives the United States negotiating leverage in the WTO talks.

Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, formerly known as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said Congress should recognize that the amendment long ago achieved its goals and remove Russia from the provision.

“Russia’s strong relationship with Israel is partly a testament to over one million Russian-speaking emigres who have become Israeli citizens since Jackson-Vanik was enacted,” Levin said. “Russian Jewish life has flourished dramatically since the Soviet collapse in 1991.” (Reuters)