Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov today rejected the European Commission's proposal on easing visa restrictions for Russians living in the exclave of Kaliningrad. He said the EU proposals are nothing but the same visa regime "in a different package."
Prague, 27 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia today rejected the European Commission's proposals on easing visa restrictions for residents of Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said the proposals, which involve a so-called "pass system," are unacceptable. Kasyanov said the pass system is no better than a transit visa in terms of restricting Kaliningraders' access to the rest of Russia.
Kasyanov made his remarks today at the official opening of a new border crossing between Russia and Finland at the border town Salla. He said Russia and the European Union still have to "do a large amount of work" to solve the problem.
Last week, the European Commission proposed a system of so-called "facilitated transit documents" for Kaliningrad residents and suggested that sealed, high-speed trains could be used to carry Russians to and from Kaliningrad via Lithuania.
Kaliningrad is cut off from the rest of Russia by Lithuania and Poland, both of which are slated to become European Union members in 2004. The EU has expressed concern about maintaining its Schengen visa regime after expansion, and Kaliningrad has been an especially sore subject.
Russia strongly opposes the introduction of visas for residents of Kaliningrad.
Lithuania today refrained from direct comment on Kasyanov's statement regarding the European Commission proposal. In an interview with RFE/RL, Petras Zapolskas of Lithuania's Foreign Ministry said: "OK, that's Kasyanov's attitude. It's Russia's position and I am not ready to comment on it. Lithuania expressed its own opinion [in the protocols it signed with the EU] on the 22nd of April [agreeing to the EU visa regime], and nothing has changed from that time. Even if we decide to change our position, we cannot do that because we have our obligations toward the EU. These obligations are clearly stated in the negotiation protocol with the EU."
Timofei Bordachev, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL that Kasyanov's rejection of the European Commission proposal is not surprising. "Objectively, I find nothing strange in [the rejection]. The European Commission's proposals, if you compare them with what Russia was suggesting in the beginning [of talks on Kaliningrad], make the matter even more complicated than the mere introduction of visas. I think that now, no other way is really left for the Russian representatives [but to reject the proposal]," Bordachev said.
Bordachev said that some slightly different solution will be found but said it is not clear when. "I think that we should not be nervous about the situation and wait and see if President [Vladimir] Putin decides to take part in the [EU-Russia] November summit or not," Bordachev said.
Bordachev said it would be a clear sign showing the Russian intentions.
Andrei Piontkovskii is director of the Center for Strategic Studies think tank based in Moscow. He said that from the very beginning of the talks, Russia sought to raise the stakes. "I think the problem is purely technical, but it is complicated by the fact that from the very beginning it was made too political by severe political declarations that came from the very top, from the president of our country himself," Piontkovskii said.
Piontkovskii, like Bordachev, thinks a solution will be found but does not think Russia can put serious pressure on the EU. He said Russia simply cannot afford to aggravate relations with the EU at a time when its relations with the United States are strained by the issue of a war in Iraq.
However, Kasyanov's statement does not mean that a compromise cannot be achieved. Piontkovskii said strong Russian statements usually mean very little. "All right. We stated very strongly in the past that there would be no NATO expansion. It is our position to make strong statements that we cannot support and later, at the last moment, to retreat. This manner has become a paradigm of Russian foreign policy," Piontkovskii said.
Kasyanov's statement came just one day after Russian President Putin spoke by telephone with European Commission President Romano Prodi and discussed the Kaliningrad visa dispute.
The RIA-Novosti news agency quoted a Kremlin spokesman as saying Putin and Prodi stressed the importance of settling the dispute, which has strained relations between Moscow and the European Union ahead of EU enlargement.
Russia is not the only country displeased by the European Commission's proposals. The scheme was also criticized by Poland. Last week, Interior Minister Krzysztof Janik said Russian citizens who want to travel to Russia through Poland should have to acquire proper visas. He said the EU proposal is unrealistic.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis said the European proposal is "acceptable" but stressed Lithuania does not want to become an exception to the Schengen treaty.
European Commission spokesman Jonathan Faull said the EU does not consider the proposal rejected by Moscow. EU foreign ministers are due to discuss Kaliningrad on 30 September in Brussels.