NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Russia promised Friday to lift its blanket ban on European vegetables once the EU provides documented proof of their safety, and voiced hope that it could join the World Trade Organization this year after nearly 20 years of talks.
Russia has banned all fresh vegetable imports from the European Union due to the E. coli outbreak that has killed 29 people and sickened 2,900 others. The EU has called the Russian ban disproportionate, and the controversy has clouded Russia's WTO accession talks.
Speaking after a summit with an array of top EU officials in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod, 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Moscow, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said the country will be ready to lift the ban after receiving the safety certificates from the EU.
"We are ready to resume the shipments under guarantees of the EU authorities," Medvedev said at a news conference.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the EU will send a form for issuing such certificates to Russia in the next few days.
"Our teams have agreed that the ban on vegetables from the EU will be lifted," Barroso said. "The system of the certification of the vegetables will be put in place without any delay."
Russian officials had said before the summit the ban will only be lifted once the EU determines what caused the outbreak and how the bacteria spread.
Despite the expressions of hope over the lifting of the ban, there's still uncertainty as to when it will actually be done.
Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's top sanitary official who attended Friday's summit, wouldn't say when the ban could be lifted, signaling that it could take longer than just a few days.
"The ball is in their court," he told The Associated Press. "Everything depends on how hard they (the EU) try."
Onishchenko said the EU has agreed to provide Russia with safety certificates for specific vegetables from individual countries.
Vegetable imports from EU countries last year accounted for nearly a quarter of all Russian vegetable imports, or 620,000 tons, Russian Agriculture Minister Yelena Skrynnik said this week.
Despite seeming benefits for local producers, Russia is paying a high price for the ban as officials warn it will likely fuel inflation, which is already running at an annual rate of 9.6 percent.
The dispute over the vegetable ban has also affected WTO talks, though Medvedev said Russia hopes to join the organization that sets rules for international trade by the end of the year.
"The chances for that are high, and it will largely depend on our ability to understand each other," he said, adding that Russia hopes to conclude the WTO talks with the EU within a month.
Barroso was more cautious, saying Russia and the EU need to continue a dialogue on a host of trade issues to achieve that goal.
"We believe that Russia's WTO accession is still possible this year," Barroso said.
He added that Russia and the EU would be negotiating in the coming weeks to deal with issues like Russia's quotas on meat and dairy exports, sanitary control and the investment regime for the car industry in Russia.
Russian Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina told reporters that Russia and the EU were hoping to reach a final agreement before the end of July.
Russia is by far the largest economy still outside the WTO, which regulates trade between its 153 member states, despite being in talks to join since 1993.
Medvedev said that Russia "is sick of " 18 years of talks and described the remaining differences as insignificant.
"Russia needs to be a member of the WTO, but to be honest our partners also need it," Medvedev said.
Medvedev said Russia also expects the EU to revise its energy market regulations that Moscow considers discriminatory against Russian energy supplies.
He also used the occasion to push for visa-free travel between Russia and the EU.
Relations between the two have been lukewarm over the past few years and on the summit's eve, the European Parliament passed a resolution outlining conditions for better EU-Russia ties.
It urged Moscow to do more to protect basic human rights by ending "politically motivated court decisions," remove curbs on press freedom and freedom of assembly and pull troops out of Georgia.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy told reporters after Friday's talks that Europe is still concerned about the violations of human rights in Russia "despite the personal engagement and initiatives of the (Russian) president."