Baku - The World Anti-Doping Agency announced on Thursday that Russia had agreed to allow a WADA team to make the long-awaited inspection visits to the main Russian laboratory.
"A delegation from WADA will be in the Moscow laboratory on November 28, with high hopes that the full technical team will be there to complete the work in the days after," WADA president Craig Reedie said in Baku.
The visits were one of the conditions WADA's executive committee set on September 20 when it voted to reinstate Russia's state anti-doping agency, RUSADA, paving the way for Russian athletes to return to competition across all sports, a decision which brought heavy criticism of WADA and Reedie.
WADA set a December 31 deadline for access to the Moscow lab's doping samples, in good condition, from 2011 to 2015.
WADA on Thursday responded to accusations that it had bowed to external pressure, adopting new rules of governance to strengthen its independence, though these steps were judged too timid by some of its critics.
RUSADA was initially suspended by WADA in 2016 after an independent report by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren found that more than 1,000 athletes across more than 30 sports were aided by state-sponsored doping.
Previously, negotiations over a visit had stalled as Russian authorities argued that the lab was sealed while they conducted their own forensic investigation. On Thursday they changed their stance.
"I know that, literally, a few hours before the meeting of the executive board, Russian officials contacted WADA," Yury Ganus, the RUSADA chief, told the official Russian news agency TASS.
In one of the sports most affected by scandal, athletics, 15 disciplinary proceedings, are pending before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
"It makes me optimistic, but cautiously optimistic," said WADA's chief executive officer Olivier Niggli. "If the political will is there, it's quite achievable, I'll be totally optimistic when I get the date of the second mission."
Jonathan Taylor, the chair of WADA's compliance review committee, said the conditions were "clear" and that failure to comply by the Russians would bring a "strong" response.
WADA's decision to offer Russia a route back brought a storm of criticism, much of it internal, and the atmosphere on Thursday in the hotel by the Caspian Sea where the meetings were taking place, was tense.
In the name of greater independence, the agency voted to end, from 2022, the rule that guaranteed that its presidency and vice presidency rotate between the International Olympic Committee and national governments, who between them fund its $30 million (26 million euros) budget.
WADA also voted to add two independent members to its executive committee where the 12 seats are currently split between IOC and national representatives.
"We have changed the dynamics of the executive committee," said Niggli.
Not all the critics were convinced.
Graeme Steel, the chair of Institute of National Anti-Doping Organisations, told AFP that his members "are dissatisfied with where the conversations got to and what has been recommended, having said that it is better than it was a few months ago. There is now some prospect of independent voices."
WADA vice president Linda Helleland said the changes were a "step in the right direction" but she added that "it is crucial that we don't stop at this stage."
The board agreed that this was a "first step" and that work would continue, particularly on the question of the representation of athletes.
The old rules will still apply at the next election, in Katowice, Poland, in November 2019, when WADA will select a member government nominee as successor to Britain's Reedie, an IOC member.
Helleland, Norway's Minister of Children and Equality, and US anti-doping agency chief Travis Tygart, also a fierce critic of the decision to open the door to Russia, are potential candidates.
WADA also suspended the National Anti-Doping Agency of Nigeria on Thursday because of shortcomings in its control program.
"We are working with them to solve these problems and we hope that it will go quickly," WADA's Frederic Donze told AFP.