Russian and European Union leaders have agreed on travel rules for Russia's exclave of Kaliningrad, thus defusing a dispute that had been straining relations. The new travel rules are designed to make it easy for Russians in Kaliningrad to reach the rest of their country through the territory of future EU members Poland and Lithuania. But Lithuania has doubts. And in practice, just how easy will the new regime prove to be?
Prague, 14 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Lithuania is expressing caution about this week's agreement between the European Union and Russia on transit arrangements for the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
The agreement is due to come into force on 1 July next year, in preparation for the expected entry of Lithuania and Poland into the European Union in 2004. The Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad is entirely surrounded by Lithuanian and Polish territory. At present, no visas are necessary for residents of the exclave who wish to travel to Russia proper. But the EU has insisted on some form of visa regulation, saying that such measures are necessary to control what could be a large flow of illegal immigrants into EU territory.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and EU leaders on 11 November reached a compromise deal under which Kaliningraders will be able to transit with so-called "facilitated travel documents" that will be easier and cheaper to obtain than regular visas.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after the meeting with Putin that the agreement was fair for all concerned, including Lithuania. "It is a balanced agreement, which takes into account the Russian need for transit to and from Kaliningrad, as well as the Lithuanian right to exercise full sovereignty on Lithuanian territory," Rasmussen said.
Russia's presidential envoy to the EU on the Kaliningrad issue, Dmitrii Rogozin, also went out of his way to reassure Lithuania. Speaking in Moscow yesterday, after taking part in the negotiations in Brussels, he said: "It goes without saying that I think -- I hope -- Lithuania will accept all of the decisions reached on 11 November in Brussels. But it's important here to maintain all the gentlemen's agreements so that there won't be a dragging-out in time, new problems, reasons for which things can't be carried out."
Lithuania's consent is necessary if the agreement is to come into force. But the Lithuanians remain unconvinced. Violeta Gaizauskaite, the spokeswoman for President Valdas Adamkus, said today that there are many uncertainties in the new agreement and "questions with no answers." "The president and our diplomats are having consultations with the EU and with Russia also. The questions must be resolved so that the agreement is shown to be useful to both sides," Gaizauskaite said.
At the Foreign Ministry, spokeswoman Daiva Rimasauskaite said that a list of practical questions is now being drawn up, and she said Lithuania wants to preserve its interests in the following areas: "Sovereignty, and in border control and other questions, as well as the conditions which will guarantee Lithuanian accession to the Schengen area and financial support from the European Union [to implement the new transit measures]."
These key issues lie at the center of Lithuania's doubts over Kaliningrad. Vilnius has requested that it have final say on who travels through Lithuanian territory. It also expects assurances that any agreement will not prejudice Lithuania's chances of joining the Schengen agreement. Finally, should the decision be made to have high-speed, sealed trains traveling through Lithuania, Vilnius expects financial assistance to offset the costs.
Brussels-based analyst Marius Vahl of the Centre for European Policy Studies, said the desire to participate in the EU's Schengen border-control system is at the heart of Lithuania's concerns. Schengen is the system under which travelers arriving on EU territory are checked once at point of entry and are then free to go to any other Schengen-zone member state without further visas. The attraction of such a system for illegal immigrants is obvious, and Vahl said Vilnius fears becoming the weak link in the Schengen chain. "What they are concerned about is that the EU has given too many concessions to Russia and that this will be used against Lithuania when they will eventually join the EU and they fear their participation in the Schengen agreement will be postponed or meet with some difficulty," Vahl said.
One general question that also arises is just how easy -- or difficult -- it will be for Kaliningraders to obtain a facilitated travel document. Ease of access and cheapness are, after all, supposed to be the advantages of the new system. At present, Lithuania has only one consulate in Kaliningrad that could issue the transit document. The Foreign Ministry says it has applied to open another consulate in the city of Sovetsk, and there are informal indications that permission for this will be granted.
Spokeswoman Rimasauskaite said thought is also being given to issuing the document near borders, at least for train travelers.