ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) -- Russia could complete talks with the European Union on joining the World Trade Organization by the end of 2009, potentially paving the way for official entry next year, a senior EU official said Thursday.
"We have a common understanding on the gaps that need to be bridged now," EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton said in an emailed statement after meeting with Russian officials. "We have agreed that WTO accession should be completed before the end of this year."
Russian Economy Minister Elvira Nabiullina echoed Ashton's comments, saying that "there is a feeling that we are about to reach an agreement with the EU," and that it should happen by the end of the year, state-run news agency RIA Novosti quoted her as saying.
Russian officials were meeting separately with EU and U.S officials on their bid to join the WTO during an investment forum in St. Petersburg, Russia's northern capital.
Moscow has sought entry to the 153-member trade body since the early 1990s, but has failed to conclude agreements on issues such as agriculture and timber duties.
"Sixteen years of talks is more than enough," Anatoly Chubais, a former finance minister and architect of Russia's privatizations, told a roundtable at the forum. "It's time to finalize talks, especially now that they are at such an advanced stage."
Maxim Medvedkov, Russia's chief WTO negotiator, said it could six months after the completion of talks before Russia is formally accepted into the body, RIA-Novosti reported.
Russia is the only major economy remaining outside of the WTO. Its aspirations to join the organization floundered last summer after Russia's five-day war with Georgia prompted the U.S. to delay talks. Russia has also angered trade partners over its recent moves to ban pork imports from some countries because of fears over swine flu.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Thursday was he was "very much welcoming" of Russia's WTO bid.
Investors were skeptical of any quick moves on WTO, and warned of the threat that growing protectionist measures pose to their business in Russia while the world faces a global downturn.
BP Plc chief executive Tony Hayward warned against moves that would trigger a "downward spiral" of protectionism and hinder a global recovery.
"In recent times, we have seen a new form of protectionism re-emerging in the energy sector. It is often referred to as resource nationalism," said Hayward, referring to the transfer of major energy assets to state companies. "In the long term, this type of protectionism is as harmful as trade protectionism."
Thousands of delegates have gathered in St Petersburg for the start of a three-day economic forum as the Russian government navigates its way through its worst economic crisis in a decade. President Dmitry Medvedev is to address the forum on Friday.