Biden backs Russia WTO bid, praises Medvedev

MOSCOW Wed Mar 9, 2011 12:23pm EST

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden pays his respects during a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the walls of Moscow's Kremlin March 9, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden pays his respects during a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the walls of Moscow's Kremlin March 9, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Alexander Natruskin

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised Dmitry Medvedev's "personal leadership" on Wednesday and backed Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, but stopped short of giving a timeline.

Medvedev, hosting Biden for a visit designed to bolster economic ties after two years of improving relations between Moscow and Washington, said Russia wants membership this year.

"Because of your personal leadership... I think we've proved the skeptics wrong: We have had great progress in the last two years," Biden told the Kremlin chief.

The United States has demonstratively played up Medvedev's role in contrast to its much cooler approach to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who remains Russia's pre-eminent leader.

Earlier, Biden told a business roundtable: "We strongly support Russia's accession to the WTO". He said progress had been made after they settled some agricultural trade differences.

Analysts say that with the New START nuclear arms pact's entry into force last month, and elections approaching in both countries, the prospect of more big gains for the Cold War foes could be low.

Biden told business leaders Russia still needed to provide more assurances to investors, "improve the investment climate, implement the rule of law and tackle endemic corruption".

Medvedev has made fighting graft one of his top priorities since he took office three years ago, though analysts say they have seen little change.

Referring to the WTO bid, he said economic relations "lag substantially behind" political ties with the United States.

"I hope these processes will be completed this year, with the active support of the United States," Medvedev told Biden.

TALKS ON LIBYA

U.S. officials said Biden would also have "serious discussions" with Moscow about the unrest in Libya and the Arab world as well as cooperation on missile defense.

As the United States and NATO weigh potential military options against Libya, including a no-fly zone, Russia has warned it opposes military intervention.

A permanent U.N. Security Council member, Russia has the power to veto any resolution, and can use that clout to influence Western policy as it has done on Iran.

The business gathering was at Skolkovo, a site outside Moscow where the Kremlin plans a high-tech hub using tax breaks and other incentives to lure investment and nurture innovation.

The project is critical to Medvedev's uphill battle to modernize Russia's energy-reliant economy, which critics say is riddled with corruption and red tape.

"We fully support President Medvedev's vision of a nation powered by innovation," Biden said.

Russian-U.S. trade totaled $23.5 billion in 2010, just 3.8 percent of Russia's total external trade.

Biden presided over the signing of a deal between U.S. plane maker Boeing Co and Russia's Aeroflot.

He was due to meet Putin on Thursday as well as opposition leaders and activists, sending a message that the United States is not ignoring critics who accuse Russia's leaders of curtailing democracy and human rights.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman and Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Paul Taylor)

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