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    RUSSIA HOPES TO END TALKS WITH BASIC TRADE PARTNERS ON JOINING WTO IN 2004

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    PARIS, FEBRUARY 24. /RIA NOVOSTI CORRESPONDENT ANDREI NIZAMUTDINOV/ -- In 2004 Russia hopes to end talks with its main partners in trade on joining the World Trade Organisation, Russian Economic Development Minister German Gref said in Paris.

    He participated in a meeting with representatives of the French business circles.

    In the last four years the negotiating process has been "very actively going on", he said. "It can now be said that we have travelled most of the road", he continued. The goal now is "to try to complete in 2004 the negotiating process with all the main trade partners" - the European Union, the United States, Japan and China.

    Russia has "99 percent agreed" with Japan, there is "an open list of questions" which can well be settled with the United States, Gref said. Work "is under way" with China, he added.

    As regards the European Union, which is Russia's main partner in trade, "there do exist some stumbling blocks".

    It is, above all, the energy problem. "The EU has given us tough guidelines", Gref said, explaining that the levelling out of internal and external prices of gas and other energy carriers is meant.

    "We say it is impossible today and on a shorter perspective", said the economic development minister.

    "In prospect, during a long time we will certainly increase fuel prices because it is the only way to instigate the cutting of energy expenses. Economically speaking, we have no other way to boost the lowering of energy intensity", he said. At the same time, "we are not ready in a short time to assume such commitments and in this way 'explode' the domestic, social and economic situation", Gref stressed.

    "Hopefully, we can come to an acceptable solution and resolve four or five other remaining complex problems", said the economic development minister.

    He voiced the hope that this year Russia will be able to "dot all the i's and cross all the t's in the EU talks" and "draw a line in talks with our largest trade partner".

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