Moscow and its partners will join the WTO separately, Russia's chief trade negotiator said Friday, dropping an earlier pledge to enter the global body with two ex-Soviet neighbors.
In June, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stunned the West by saying Russia would stop its 16-year entry process and instead seek membership as a single customs union with the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Kazakhstan.
"A delegation of the customs union has informed the WTO members that they will continue accession de jure (legally) as sovereign countries," Russia's top trade negotiator Maxim Medvedkov said.
In comments released by the economic ministry, Medvedkov said that joining as a single customs union would have led "to serious legal and procedural problems and could have considerably held up the completion of the talks."
Russia's decision in June to mount a joint entry bid was seen in the West as making the accession process even more difficult.
Last month, however, amid a general improvement in relations with Moscow, Washington said it was eager for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and promised "constructive support" toward that end.
Russia and its partners have informed WTO members of the decision after a round of consultations that ended in Geneva Friday, said Medvedkov, who also represents Belarus and Kazakhstan at the talks.
While the three countries would pursue separate entry bids, Russia will work in tight coordination with the two other on issues related to the operations of the customs union, he added.
Analysts said Russia shot itself in the foot with Putin's June bombshell, as it would essentially have had to start the accession talks from scratch.
The United States quickly rejected the plan as "unworkable" and WTO head Pascal Lamy said at the time that Moscow's change of tack had caused considerable "perplexity" within the WTO.
In July, President Dmitry Medvedev backed away from Putin's pledge, saying that joining separately was "simpler and more realistic," in what analysts took to be a rare example of the Kremlin chief being out of step with his powerful predecessor.
Russia, the only major economic power still outside the WTO, began negotiations to join in 1993, but growing expressions of Russian frustration over the process has marked talks.
Medvedkov said the decision to enter the global trade body separately would not affect the three countries' intention to press ahead with a customs union between them.
Analysts said it was too early to predict when Russia could wrap up the talks and finally join the WTO as formal talks had not begun in earnest yet.
"We've rolled back. The talks are not going on," said Alexei Portansky, head of the information office on Russia's accession to the WTO, an independent expert group.
"This is standby state," he said, noting that Russia and its customs union partners have so far just informed the WTO members of the new configuration.
Medvedkov said that additional materials regarding the customs union would be submitted to the WTO within the next two or three weeks.