MOSCOW - President Dmitry Medvedev said on Wednesday Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization had not been damaged by the complications of pursuing membership together with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Russia has been negotiating to join for 16 years and is the largest economy still outside the 153-member body.

We will join the WTO despite some delays due to the formation of the customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, Medvedev said. There should be no doubt about this.

Russia has returned to direct WTO negotiations after a pause caused by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's June 9 announcement that his country wanted to join the organization with Belarus and Kazakhstan through a customs union -- an unprecedented move in the history of the WTO.

The customs union will come into force on January 1, 2010 and will create common external tariffs for the three former Soviet republics and a single market for 165 million people.

Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said on Wednesday there was only one WTO negotiation group for the union, consisting of representatives from all three countries, and that for now the group was working effectively.

If we need to change the format, we will make such a decision, but this decision would be made only with the agreement of all three countries, Shuvalov said.

Last week the three countries said they hoped for WTO entry as soon as possible, but would pursue their candidacies as separate states [ID:nLF24334].

Kazakhstan's First Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeyev said his country also strongly supported negotiating as a group.

In our negotiations with the WTO there is whole series of issues that do not fall into the competence of the customs union and which we can address individually, Shukeyev said. But what relates to the customs union -- only together, only simultaneously and only as agreed.


Russia's Ministry for Economic Development said earlier this month the customs union could without rushing finish negotiations in the next 1-1/2 to 2 years [ID:nL1586681].

Shuvalov said the negotiating committee, headed by Russia's WTO negotiator Maxim Medvedkov, was holding talks with some of the customs union's largest trade partners.

Putin, when he became the country's president in 2000, declared WTO membership a priority, but the process has been stalled by complications and disputes.

Russia appeared close to joining last year, but its August 2008 military conflict with Georgia froze negotiations.

Russia's attempt to join the WTO in a union with Belarus and Kazakhstan may further delay the entry, trade officials said.

EU trade chief Catherine Ashton said last week the best strategy for Russia would be go to abandon its joint efforts and focus on its own bid [ID:nLF24334].

(Reporting and writing by Lidia Kelly; editing by Andrew Roche)