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Ukraine will join WTO by end of year, says foreign minister

Ukraine hopes to join the World Trade Organization by the end of 2007, allowing for negotiations to open on a first-ever free trade deal with the European Union, the country's Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Tuesday.

“By end of the year, Ukraine will join the WTO club,”  Yatsenyuk said at a joint news briefing with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Once WTO membership is assured, Yatsenyuk said Ukraine would open formal negotiations on a free trade agreement with the EU. EU rules require that countries seeking free trade agreements with the bloc should first accede to the WTO, the Geneva-based international trade body. Yatsenyuk and Ferrero-Waldner said talks on a broader political and economic cooperation agreement between the EU and Ukraine - a so-called “enhanced agreement” - were making good progress.

While there was no unanimity among EU governments on Ukraine's long-standing drive to join the bloc, Ferrero-Waldner said the planned agreement was a “very important” step in Kiev's search for closer ties with the EU. The deal under discussion with Ukraine was the “most advanced” agreement offered to any of the EU's neighbors, she said. But Ferrero-Waldner stressed that finalization of the agreement was conditional on Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for September being “conducted in a fully democratic manner.” The EU hoped for a “stable situation in Ukraine” and on progress in constitutional and judicial reforms, she said. Yatsenyuk told reporters the planned elections would be “the most transparent elections we have ever had.”

Ukraine's pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko and his rival Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who is close to Russia, agreed earlier this year to hold new parliamentary elections on September 30 in an effort to defuse tensions between their supporters. Ukraine is an important transit route for Western Europe's oil and gas supplies from Russia and the Caspian Sea region. Yatsenyuk said all parties in Ukraine believed in a “European perspective” for their country. “There is no dispute over this,” he said. (