STOCKHOLM Russia wants to join the World Trade Organization on its own but will synchronize its entry with Kazakhstan and Belarus, its partners in a customs union, a Russian official said on Wednesday.
His comments after trade talks with the European Union removed some of the confusion caused by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in June when he said Russia would join only as part of the customs union -- an unprecedented move for the WTO.
"We want the WTO talks to go quickly and be concluded soon," Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU, told reporters at a Russia-EU summit in Stockholm attended by President Dmitry Medvedev.
"After the customs union was formed, some interpreted this as a sign of Russia losing interest in WTO. This is wrong ... Members of the customs union will join the WTO as separate entities but in a synchronized way and with common positions."
The customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus will come into force on January 1, 2010, creating common external tariffs for the three former Soviet republics and a single market for 165 million people.
Joining the WTO would open markets to Russia, the biggest country outside the 153-country organization, and open Russian markets to WTO member states.
Moscow's 16-year trail of WTO talks has often stalled on various disputes and before joining the WTO -- through the customs union or on its own -- Russia must resolve several trade and tariff issues.
CONCERN OVER TARIFF LEVELS
Leaders of WTO countries say accession would allow Russia to trim import tariffs while remaining competitive, and have urged it to increase its efforts to join.
But Russia has stiffened restrictions on a series of imports, including a 30-percent duty on new foreign cars, to protect domestic industries during a recession that wiped out a tenth of the country's economy in the first half of the year.
Russia is not alone in taking protective action -- many others rushed to aid their domestic producers as well, resulting in rising anti-dumping investigations in the past year [ID:nLA559589] -- but WTO economies have been restrained by the organization's rules on import restrictions.
"One of Russia's concerns is anti-dumping procedures, quotas and technical barriers used by the EU against the Russian goods and also obstacles to Russian investment," a Kremlin official told reporters before the summit.
European Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton said after talks with Russian Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina that she hoped WTO entry for Russia would pave the way to a broad economic agreement between the EU and Russia.
"We've been pushing very hard and been very supportive for Russia to get into the WTO as soon as possible. From there we can do a free-trade agreement but we really need that underpinning of WTO membership from Russia," she told Reuters.
"They recognize that, Minister Nabiullina recognizes that. I was encouraged that she is clearly thinking about getting in as soon as possible."
Ashton said the EU wanted to ensure Russia removed tariffs that were supposed to be temporary.
"The issues for us will be how does the customs union consolidate the tariff levels, making sure our businesses don't suffer as a consequence of that, of what in Russia were meant to be temporary measures. They need to stay temporary," she said.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)