Russia gets free market status

Brussels May 29. The European Commission president, Mr. Romano Prodi, announced that Europe would recognise Russia as a market economy — a key step towards Russia's desire to join the World Trade Organisation. The announcement will boost trade with Europe which already accounts for 40 per cent of Russian exports.

European Union (E.U.) leaders are in Moscow today for crucial talks with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin has called for concessions, saying there was "no understanding" from the E.U. of Russia's concerns about its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

The Russian leader said European leaders had failed to address the effect of proposed Polish and Lithuanian accession to the E.U. on Kaliningrad, which is surrounded by the two countries. Russia wants its citizens to continue to be allowed to travel between the enclave and the main republic without the visas required to enter E.U. countries.

The 15 E.U. governments are seen to be in a "desperate hurry" to consolidate their trading, economic and investment relations with Russia which offers vast potential. The E.U.'s trade with Russia was euro82 billion last year compared to euro60 billion with China and less than half of that with India.

Russia is seen attaching special importance to its economic ties with the E.U., which like the NATO, is taking in more members. Until November 1999, E.U.-Russia relations were strained on account of the Chechnya crisis. Russia accused the West of double standards in its criticism of Russia's actions in Chechnya while the NATO launched a military campaign in Kosovo. September 11 has changed everything. Russia today is a member of the global alliance formed to fight terrorism.

The Western powers now concede that the breakaway republic of Chechnya is an integral part of the Russian federation.

Russia may not aspire to become a member of the E.U. but Mr. Putin says it will always be a part of "greater Europe."

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