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EU: Russia, Lithuania Refuse To Blink In Standoff Over Kaliningrad

  • Ahto Lobjakas

A "special meeting" on Kaliningrad hosted by the European Parliament in Brussels failed to make any progress toward resolving the problems facing the Russian exclave after European Union enlargement. Instead, the meeting appears to have magnified the differences between Russia and Lithuania, casting doubt over whether a compromise can be found in the course of the remaining few weeks before the EU-Russia summit in Copenhagen on 11 November.

Brussels, 16 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After yesterday's meeting of Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish parliamentary leaders, the president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox -- who moderated the debate -- said he had presided over a "frank exchange of views."

In diplomatic parlance, this adds up to a bleak assessment of the debate -- a fact that was borne out at the press conference following the closed-door talks.

If anything, Russian and Lithuanian positions over access to Kaliningrad in the run-up to European Union enlargement appear to have hardened since the European Commission unveiled its compromise proposals on 18 September.

Lithuania now appears to have distanced itself from the centerpiece of the proposal -- the suggestion that Russian travelers to and from Kaliningrad could be issued with so-called Facilitated Transit Documents (FTDs). The FTDs would allow Russian travelers access to Kaliningrad via Lithuania, but commission officials said they "could not be forced" on other candidate states or EU member states.

The commission has repeatedly said it has the full backing of the Lithuanian government. But yesterday, the speaker of the Lithuanian Sejmas, Arturas Paulauskas, said his country would only accept the FTDs if they were applied "on an equal basis" throughout the EU's entire Schengen area: "On 10 October, the Lithuanian parliament Sejmas adopted a special resolution on Kaliningrad. In this resolution we specifically state that the [Lithuanian] government is instructed to negotiate under the following conditions -- and specifically that the FTD should be valid throughout the territory of the entire European Union."

The demand does not appear realistic, as even neighboring Poland has said it will demand full visas from Russian travelers. But it highlights Lithuania's central concern -- that concessions to Russia may endanger its own accession to Schengen in a few years' time.

Lithuanian officials also told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that Lithuania doubts whether a satisfactory compromise spanning a host of complex technical details and EU guarantees could be worked out in the few weeks that remain before the EU-Russia summit in Copenhagen on 11 November.

Meanwhile, the Russian delegation reiterated the position adopted by the country's prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, last month -- that the FTDs offered by the EU are simply "visas in disguise" and thus unacceptable.

Sergei Mironov, the speaker of Russia's Federation Council, said yesterday Russia could only accept a solution which guarantees that eventually, the EU visa requirement will be dropped altogether: "As regards the so-called transit document, Russia considers as unacceptable a situation where the question of passage of Russian citizens from one part of their country to another is decided by foreign government or foreign bureaucrats. For this reason, Russia stands for visa-free movement [between itself and the EU] and tries to find a solution acceptable to itself, Lithuania, and the EU."

Yet only a few weeks ago, EU foreign ministers expressly ruled out any links between talks over Kaliningrad and the dropping of the visa requirement.

Mironov also said Russian citizens must have access to Kaliningrad by both road and rail. The Lithuanian government, on the other hand, has ruled out visa-free transit on buses and says feasibility studies for high-speed train links cannot be conducted before 2004, when it expects to join the EU. At the same time, Vilnius says that in accordance with earlier EU demands at accession talks, it will introduce visas for Russian citizens on 1 January next year.

Mironov yesterday rejected speculation that an EU-subsidized "air bridge" could offer a way out of the current impasse, saying it complicates travel needlessly and is likely to prove too costly for most Russians.

Mironov did, however, offer one conciliatory gesture, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin would not boycott the November EU-Russia summit if a compromise is not found by then, saying Russia would welcome "every opportunity" for talks.

A high-level EU delegation is scheduled to arrive in Moscow later today to discuss the dispute with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.