The European Union appears to have bowed to pressure from Russia to soften its proposed visa restrictions for residents of Russia's Kaliningrad exclave.
Brussels, 18 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission today announced a set of measures to ease transit between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia.
Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, said when presenting the proposals today that resolving the issue was a "matter of principle" without which "enlargement talks cannot be concluded."
"In short," Prodi said, "we are preparing a packet of measures that would facilitate, to the greatest extent, the direct transit of goods and people between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia after enlargement."
Prodi said the new arrangements would mostly affect Lithuania. The commission package proposes that frequent Russian travelers between Russia proper and Kaliningrad be issued "facilitated transit documents," or FTDs. Until the end of 2004, the document would need to be accompanied by a domestic Russian passport -- after that, an international passport would be required.
The document would be issued at "low cost" or free of charge by Lithuanian consular authorities "after the examination of lists provided by the Russian authorities." Any individual in possession of an FTD may choose his or her own mode of transportation, although the transit would have to take place over a "short period."
Prodi said he was preparing a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin explaining the proposals. Prodi said he was "personally convinced that the proposals we are offering now are a good part of a solution that is being offered to President Putin, although they are obviously still not fully defined. In fact, we will have to discuss the details with the existing [European Union] members, the candidate countries, and Russia."
Prodi also said FTDs would be in full compliance with EU law. Until recently, the EU had insisted that its visa-free Schengen regime can only recognize properly issued visas in international passports. All candidate countries are already required to meet the lion's share of Schengen requirements, although they cannot join the system until 2006 when the necessary information-exchange facilities are in place.
An EU official who wished to remain anonymous told RFE/RL that the Lithuanian government "has already agreed to the package." He said the FTD is "equivalent to a multiple-entry visa" but is cheap or free, renewable, and valid when accompanied by a domestic passport until the end of 2004.
Prodi said the EU would "guarantee" Lithuania that the proposed measures would not be an obstacle to joining the EU's visa-free Schengen regime. He did not provide any details on how the guarantee would be given.
Prodi said "proposals upholding the integrity of [European] Community legislation will guarantee that other obstacles would not be created after the elimination of internal border controls between the current and future member states of the [European] Union."
The anonymous EU source said other candidates besides Lithuania are free to decide whether to grant transit rights through their territory to Russian citizens carrying an FTD, but added the EU would "not force anyone to do so." He also noted that Russia had voluntarily dropped its demands for visa-free transit via Poland and had never mentioned any other accession candidates in its Kaliningrad-related demands.
The official also said that "the Russians appear pleased" with the commission's proposal, although it does not meet all of Moscow's demands. He said the EU had been assured of Russia's positive reaction at a meeting in New York two days ago between EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
He added that a telephone conversation today between Prodi and Russian President Putin had confirmed that impression.
Among other measures, the European Commission says it wants the EU to assess the feasibility of financing nonstop, high-speed trains that would be sufficiently secure to allow visa-free travel across Lithuania.
Further, the commission says the EU should launch talks with Russia on whether mutual visa requirements can be dropped in the more distant future. Finally, the commission proposal says "full use" should be made of international conventions to allow for simplified goods transit.
The commission's proposal will now be passed on to the 15 EU member states for approval at their next summit in Brussels on 24-25 October. If Russia agrees with the terms of the proposal, a deal could be signed at the EU-Russia summit in Copenhagen on 11 November.