Jun 26, 2009
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Belarus wants free trade zone with EU

Jun 26, 2009

MINSK, June 26 (Reuters) - Belarus, pursuing a campaign to improve relations with the West, wants to create a free trade zone with the European Union within three to four years, First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko said on Friday 26 June.

Semashko, addressing parliament, also forecast difficulties in securing World Trade Organisation membership jointly for ex-Soviet Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, now part of a new customs union. That, he said, would take 10 to 12 years.

Semashko said a free trade zone with the EU was his officials' chief aim.

"The maximum achievement would be the creation of a free trade zone," Semashko told deputies. "If we move forward in normal fashion, we can form such a free trade zone in three to four years."

Belarus, long accused of human rights violations in the Weet, has been seeking closer ties with the EU since quarrelling with traditional ally Russia in 2007 over energy prices.

The EU has lifted some punitive measures on Belarus in the past year and Belarus said this week it had asked the 27-nation group for financial assistance.

Semashko said Belarus should not underestimate the difficulties in securing WTO membership.

"Russia has been trying to enter the WTO since 1993. We are now launching a new cycle over 10-12 years or more," he said. "This is a long process, a difficult process. And we have to get ready for it."

The head of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, expressed confusion this week over the joint membership bid and said it was unclear whether Russia could join the body in that form.

Russia remains the biggest economy outside the 153-member global trade body. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov told Reuters this week the United States and EU were to blame for Russia's failure so far to secure membership. (Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, writing by Ron Popeski)

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