By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised Dmitry Medvedev's "personal leadership" on Wednesday and backed Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, but stopped short of suggesting a timeline.
Medvedev, hosting Biden for a visit designed to bolster economic ties after two years of improving relations under President Barack Obama's "reset" with Moscow, said Russia wants membership this year.
"Because of your personal leadership ... I think we've proved the skeptics wrong: We have made great progress in the last two years," Biden told the Russian president.
The United States has demonstratively played up Medvedev's role in contrast to its much cooler approach to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who remains Russia's preeminent leader and has hinted he may return to the presidency in a March 2012 vote.
With elections drawing nearer in both countries, the White House and the Kremlin are eager to keep up momentum in relations after the linchpin of the "reset," the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, came into force last month.
The United States "wants to continue the progress we've made -- this time on the economic front," Biden said. He earlier presided over the signing of a deal for Russian airline Aeroflot to buy jets from U.S. plane maker Boeing Co.
Russian-U.S. trade totaled $23.5 billion in 2010, just 3.8 percent of Russia's total external trade.
Earlier, he told a business roundtable: "We strongly support Russia's accession to the WTO" and cited progress on issues including agricultural trade and intellectual property rights.
HURDLES TO CHANGE
Medvedev said "economic relations lag substantially behind" political ties" with the United States in part because Russia remains outside the WTO 18 years after first seeking entry.
Referring to WTO accession, he told Biden: "I hope these processes will be completed this year, with the active support of the United States."
Biden offered vocal support for Medvedev's drive to modernize Russia's energy-reliant economy -- a key item on the agenda of a leader critics say has little to show for three years in power.
"We fully support President Medvedev's vision of a nation powered by innovation," Biden told a meeting of American and Russian business leaders earlier in the day.
But he emphasized the need for practical steps to "improve the investment climate, implement the rule of law and tackle endemic corruption."
"Investors are looking for assurances that the legal system treats them fairly," Biden said.
Medvedev has said reforming Russia's courts and fighting graft are top priorities since Putin steered him into the Kremlin in 2008, but analysts say they have seen little change.
The business gathering was at Skolkovo, a site outside Moscow where the Kremlin plans a high-tech hub using tax breaks and other incentives to lure investment and nurture innovation.
TALKS ON LIBYA
U.S. officials said Biden would also have "serious discussions" with Moscow about the unrest in Libya and the Arab world as well as cooperation on missile defense.
As the United States and NATO weigh potential military options against Libya, including a no-fly zone, Russia has warned it opposes military intervention.
Russia has veto power as a permanent U.N. Security Council member, and can use that clout to temper Western policy and influence global actions, as it has done on Iran.
Biden was due to meet Putin on Thursday as well as opposition leaders and activists, sending a message that the United States is not ignoring critics who accuse Russia's leaders of curtailing democracy and human rights. (Writing by Steve Gutterman and Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Paul Taylor)