YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Sunday he would push hard to get the U.S. congress to approve a new START weapons treaty with Russia and stressed the former Cold War foes were now cooperating closely on key issues.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also discussed a possible veto by Russian foe Georgia of Russia’s entry to the World Trade Organization, which Obama has backed under his administration’s “reset” policy to repair U.S.-Russia ties.
“I reiterated my commitment to get the START treaty done during the lame duck session and I communicated to Congress that it is a top priority,” Obama said after meeting Medvedev on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Yokohama.
Obama is racing to get the treaty approved before the new congress convenes in January, after his Democratic Party suffered major setbacks in this month’s midterm elections that will substantially shrink its senate majority.
Obama added that Russia was being an “excellent partner” on issues important to the United States. The START treaty and the advance in stalled WTO entry talks are seen in Russia as the biggest successes of the “reset” policy.
Obama and Medvedev signed the new arms agreement in April, committing the former Cold War rivals to cut deployed nuclear weapons by about 30 percent.
Proponents of the treaty say that, while the reduction in nuclear warheads is important, the most significant element is the creation of a new monitoring regime.
The U.S. official said that getting START passed was key to persuading Russia there was merit in closer collaboration with Washington, particularly on matters related to Iran, where Medvedev has backed Obama over tougher U.N. sanctions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the presidents also discussed Russia’s participation in a NATO anti-missile defense system, another potential area of cooperation between the former Cold War foes.
Obama said the United States was also working closely with Russia on its interest in joining the World Trade Organization, where negotiations face an impasse over a possible Georgian veto.
Georgia, whose relations with its giant neighbor have remained tense since the two fought a brief war in 2008, is a member of the WTO accession Working Party for Russia and has publicly said it wanted to block Russia’s entry.
WTO members cannot execute veto rights for political reasons but Georgia says it wants to station its own customs officials at the border between Russia and two Georgian breakaway regions which declared independence after the 2008 war.
Kremlin aide on the economy Arkady Dvorkovich said Medvedev and Obama discussed the Georgian veto issue. Russia, the largest economy outside the trade watchdog, believes the United States can push its ally Georgia into backing away from its demands.
“Our position is that demands put forward by Georgia have nothing to do with the WTO negotiations,” Lavrov said. “These are two independent states which themselves decide over the issue of border control on their territory.”
Dvorkovich added that the working group report, which will serve as a foundation for membership, would be ready next spring and Russia aimed to become a member next year.
Editing by Edmund Klamann