Russia to sign air pact


Russia 's Vladimir Putin has told EU leaders Moscow will sign a long-delayed pact to phase out fees charged to airlines flying over Siberia , EU trade chief Peter Mandelson said.

Signing the agreement, nearly a year after it was first hammered out, would potentially remove an irritant to Moscow 's bid to join the World Trade Organisation.

"President Putin said that our agreement would be signed," Mandelson told Reuters after a summit meeting between Russia and the 27-nation bloc.

Putin did not say when Russia would sign the pact but transport authorities from both sides settled technical problems last week that had held up the signature, Mandelson said.

"There's therefore no impediment to the agreement being signed, and we're glad that President Putin has indicated that that signing could now take place."

Though not officially linked to Russia 's quest to join the World Trade Organisation, the EU would like the issue - along with better protection of intellectual property and other concerns - to be solved before blessing Moscow 's WTO bid.

Russia agreed a year ago to reduce the charges, the proceeds of which go directly to Russian carrier Aeroflot, and have them scrapped completely by the end of 2013.

The pact resolved a 20-year dispute with the European Union and paved the way for EU carriers to increase routes to Asia .

But the agreement has languished since then while further technical details were negotiated between the two sides.

Mandelson said he was hopeful of progress on another dispute which is directly related to Brussels backing Russia 's WTO bid - Russian export duties, especially on timber, which are a big concern for paper producers in Finland and Sweden .

Mandelson told Reuters that Moscow believed it was committed, under a 2004 deal with Brussels on WTO accession, to eliminate the export duties only once it joins the world trade body.

European Commission officials have previously said their understanding of the deal was that Russia should cut the duties before accession.

"I am hopeful that if we can reach an accommodation on the basis of the 2004 agreement, it will be possible to safeguard trade flows between now and the time of the accession, when, as (Putin) said, the duties will be eliminated," Mandelson said.

Another issue that the EU wants Russia to resolve under the terms of the 2004 deal are its railway fees that Brussels says unfairly favour Russian ports.