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Russia: Analysts Say Moscow Spins And Loses Political Game Over Kaliningrad

  • Gregory Feifer

Moscow has praised its agreement with the European Union creating "facilitated travel documents" for residents of its Kaliningrad exclave traveling to and from Russia proper. But many critics say the deal was no victory for Moscow, which had originally insisted on visa-free travel to and from Kaliningrad. Moreover, they say that as long as Russia maintains its own Byzantine visa regimes, it is no position to ask others to act differently -- or to expect that EU integration will come anytime soon.

Moscow, 15 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Officials continue to heap praise on Moscow's agreement this week with the European Union on travel between Russia and its Kaliningrad exclave, which is due to be surrounded by EU countries when Poland and Lithuania join the bloc in 2004.

State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chief Dmitrii Rogozin is President Vladimir Putin's special representative on Kaliningrad. Back from negotiations with the EU in Brussels, he praised the agreement in comments to reporters on 13 November. "This is a complete, very civilized, pragmatic decision with serious positive prospects. We're very satisfied and happy with it -- all of us -- including, I hope, Vilnius, Brussels and Moscow."

The Kaliningrad issue has played out over months of tense negotiations. The EU repeatedly said it would not make exceptions in border policy for any of its members. Moscow, in return, insisted a Kaliningrad visa regime would violate Russia's sovereignty.

In the end, the deal will require Russians traveling to and from the exclave to obtain one of two kinds of "facilitated travel documents."

Moscow announced the deal as a diplomatic triumph, saying it had managed to convince the EU to change its rules by allowing Russians to transit Lithuania without visas.

Lithuania says it will not endorse the deal without further guarantees of sovereignty and financial assistance in implementing the agreement.

But despite official praise for the agreement, the Russian press savaged the deal, saying the travel documents amounted to visas in everything but name and that Moscow had been put in a humiliating position in being forced to back down.

Vladimir Pribylovskii is president of the Panorama political research group. He said the government, particularly Rogozin, who also serves as Russia's representative to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, tried to make the best of a losing situation. "Rogozin's future career depends on whether his work on Kaliningrad is considered a success or a failure. It's in Rogozin's interests to call it a success, although there were no real successes there. It's also convenient for [Russian President Vladimir Putin] to present it as such -- well, [the EU] met him halfway because the meaning of the words was changed," Pribylovskii said.

Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky said Russia might have accepted the deal with few objections because of a sense of having lost political clout abroad following last month's hostage crisis in Moscow.

Few Russians protested the government's hard-line response to the crisis, which led to the deaths of nearly 128 hostages after special forces used an incapacitating gas to storm the theater seized by Chechen hostage takers. But Kagarlitsky said the government senses it might have lost face in the West. "Frightening people is a good thing for Russian domestic politics, but that doesn't mean it works internationally. Internationally, I think the general feeling was that now Russia was kind of weakened dramatically in terms of public image. And the only thing one could do is to compensate with rather considerable concessions to the West," Kagarlitsky.

But analysts have long predicted that Russia would have to back down over Kaliningrad. Moscow's stubborn stance on the issue, they say, may have been aimed more at shoring up public support at home than at actually forcing the EU to back down. Moscow itself called the issue "political." Presidential envoy Rogozin brushed aside EU concerns over Kaliningrad as primarily "technical." "The Russian president's position was different. He thought it was a deeply political question. The Russian president announced that the character of relations between the Russian Federation and the European Union would depend on how the question would be solved," Rogozin said.

In the end, the argument essentially boiled down to semantics, with the Kremlin describing the deal one way and its critics -- and the EU -- another.

But fine distinctions between "visas" and "facilitated travel documents" are not the only source of concern. Rogozin said Russia also fears an influx of Eastern Europeans seeking work in Kaliningrad, a region he described as "attractive" to illegal immigrants. Rogozin said that Russia, like the EU, has border concerns of its own. "The Russian Federation is also operating from an analogous concern over illegal immigration. The Russian Federation is essentially the only Eastern European country that is not an exporter but an importer of illegal immigrants. That's why measures worked out during the talks with the European Union will in many ways have long-term consequences for the Russian Federation itself, in terms of strengthening our own border controls," Rogozin said.

The EU does not appear to share Rogozin's view of Kaliningrad as a lure for opportunity-seeking immigrants. Kaliningrad, a once-closed military zone that was home to the Russian Baltic Fleet, has seen its fortunes plummet as state funding dries up. Despite attempts to promote the region as a free economic zone, Kaliningrad, a hub for organized crime and smuggling rings, remains in ruins.

Despite calling its standoff with the EU a "political" argument, Moscow's acceptance of the Kaliningrad deal appears to be based on technical reasoning.

The government says the agreement will ultimately improve upon existing visa practices. Rogozin cited as an example the expected use of an electronic ticket system that will inform Russian citizens immediately whether they will be granted passage through Lithuania. Without such a system, Russians would travel all the way to the Lithuanian border before finding out whether they had been denied transit rights, a possibility that Rogozin called "barbaric."

Putin, meanwhile, said he supports an eventual end to all travel regulations. While still in Brussels, the Russian president said: "I don't think the agreement on Kaliningrad is ideal in every way. Free movement of Russian and European citizens to and from their territories will be a permanent solution."

Analysts say Putin is in fact interested in integrating with the West. But Russia's own Byzantine travel regulations indicate the Kremlin's priorities are not so simple.

The country's own visa rules, for one, are notorious for the amount of expensive bureaucracy they generate. Russia last month transferred its visa processing from the Foreign Ministry to the Interior Ministry, further complicating the process and leaving the fate of many applications unclear.

Moreover, Moscow has also introduced quotas for foreigners seeking temporary residence in Russia. Despite a dwindling population that leaves Russia facing a potential labor shortage, Moscow has decided to grant temporary residence to just under half a million foreigners next year.

The measures are ostensibly aimed at curbing the influx of low-paid workers from Central Asia and other regions. With the exception of Georgia, Russia has visa-free travel arrangements with all the CIS states. But some observers say the regulations are also aimed at bolstering domestic public opinion by cutting down on the number of people traveling to Russia from the Caucasus.

Pribylovskii of the Panorama political research group agreed. "There could be some propaganda effect from this -- but aimed inside the country," Pribylovskii said.

But Pribylovskii added that Russia's borders are so porous that the quotas will actually have no effect -- another indication that any Russian hopes of integrating with the EU are still premature.