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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gref Says WTO Deal Could Come in Days

The United States could sign its bilateral deal on Russia's joining the World Trade Organization within days, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said Tuesday, hours before the two sides' latest deadline to reach a deal was due to expire.

"I hope we can put the finishing touches and wrap things up in the next few days," Gref told reporters.

Spokespeople for the U.S. Embassy, the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, and the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington said the talks were advancing, but they could not comment on when a deal would be reached.

The optimistic note is something of a turnabout for Gref, who said last month that Russia's WTO membership could "quite possibly" be delayed until after 2007.

And top officials from both sides have cried wolf on this issue before. In July, a spat over U.S. meat imports into Russia brought talks to a standstill, silencing a chorus of hopeful predictions, and pushing back the deadline to the end of October.

Recent squabbles have renewed doubts that a deal could be in sight. This month, Russia snubbed U.S. companies' bids to develop the Shtokman gas field, and imposed tough sanctions on Georgia, a U.S. ally and WTO member. U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab has recently attacked Russia's international copyright laws, saying she had "a hard time imagining Russia being a member of the WTO," if Russian web sites were allowed to give away copyrighted music.

But for all these bones of contention, Sean Spicer, spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative, said that he felt good about the progress of negotiations, and that, "apparently, Minister Gref felt very good."

"But I don't know why Minister Gref said what he said," Spicer added.

The CEOs of 13 international corporations urged U.S. President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin to speed up a WTO deal in a letter sent last Thursday, a spokesman for AmCham said Monday.

The bilateral deal with the United States would pave the way for technical talks on Russia joining the 149-member organization. If the United States finally consents, Russia would still need to sign an accord with all the member countries, including Georgia, which has recently said it would refuse to let Russia join the WTO.

This process is likely to take several months, and only then can Russia expect to enjoy the perks of membership, such as easier access to foreign markets. Some industries worry, however, that the lifting of trade barriers could invite foreign competition stiff enough to push them out of business.