Russia and the U.S. signed a key trade agreement on the sidelines of a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders today, marking a major economic milestone...

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HANOI, Vietnam — Russia and the U.S. signed a key trade agreement on the sidelines of a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders today, marking a major economic milestone that paves the way for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

The deal represents a powerful vote of confidence in Russia’s investment climate. The Russian economy is the largest still outside the 149-member WTO, which sets the rules for global trade.

Today’s agreement also is a bright spot in the two countries’ relations that have been marred by disagreements over Iran’s nuclear program and Washington’s fears of a rollback of democratic freedoms under Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I am very pleased to be here to celebrate … as Russia moves one important step closer to becoming a member of the WTO,” said Susan Schwab, the U.S. trade representative. “Russia belongs as a full-fledged member of the WTO.”

Membership in the WTO would mean Russia, a big oil and natural-gas exporter, would receive the same favorable tariff rates for its products as other members. Also, Russia and other member countries would have to follow WTO rules in trade disputes.

In theory, freer trade would give Russian companies more opportunities to sell their goods on world markets. Joining the WTO also might make its sizable market of potential customers even more attractive to companies in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Russia’s top trade official, German Gref, and Schwab inked the deal in Hanoi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, just hours before Putin and President Bush were due to hold talks.

The deal had been widely anticipated. On Nov. 10, both sides announced that all the main questions had been settled and all that remained were a few technicalities.