11/09/2011 07:32 EST | Updated 01/09/2012 05:12 EST

Russia signs trade deal with Georgia to enter home stretch on WTO membership

GENEVA - Russia inched closer to joining the World Trade Organization after 18 years of talks Wednesday, by signing a deal with its neighbour and one-time foe Georgia.

The agreement — inked by Russian and Georgian negotiators at the WTO headquarters in Geneva — removes the last major obstacle to Moscow's membership of the global trade body.

The deal foresees a neutral company monitoring all trade between the two nations, including the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Trade officials say there are now no major obstacles to Russia formally joining the WTO at a ministerial meeting in December.

"We are delighted that the differences between Georgia and the Russian Federation have been resolved," said WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell. He added that the deal had benefited from the work of Swiss diplomats, who have mediated between the two sides since their brief war over the separatist provinces in 2008.

The ceremony itself was held behind closed doors, and neither side commented to waiting reporters after the signing.

An official present at the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was cordial, ending with applause.

Trade diplomats from all the WTO's 153 members still have to finalize Russia's accession document later this week, with European Union officials expressing some reservations about the final wording.