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European Union: Baltic Minorities, Kaliningrad Continue To Dog Accord With Russia

As the date of its expansion approaches, the European Union is making progress toward an agreement to extend the EU-Russia cooperation accord to the 10 acceding states. But the rights of Russian speakers in Latvia and issues regarding the transit of goods between mainland Russia and its Kaliningrad exclave remain stumbling blocks.

Brussels, 16 April (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission today said it has reached agreement with Russia "on 95 percent" of the issues blocking the way to the extension of the EU-Russia partnership accord to the bloc's 10 new member states from 1 May.

Commission spokeswoman Arancha Gonzalez said today the two sides have resolved all trade-related issues, leaving only Russia's concerns over Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics and the transit of goods to and from Russia's Kaliningrad exclave.

"We have managed to already address, I would say, 95 percent of the issues that were on the table that the Russians had raised, and solutions have been found to them," Gonzalez said. "However, we continue to discuss basically two remaining issues on the table, i.e. the rights of Russian minorities [in Estonia and Latvia], and questions linked to the transit of goods to and from Kaliningrad [and the Russian mainland]."

Ongoing discussions have yet to yield results on the two issues. EU and Russian foreign ministers met in Dublin on 14 April and Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Chizhov arrived in Brussels yesterday.

Gonzalez said both issues would be raised at a top-level meeting between the commission and the Russian government in Moscow on 22 April.

Estonia and Latvia say they want no reference to minorities in a joint EU-Russia declaration to be signed on 27 April.

Russia's recent pressure has concentrated on Latvia, which continues to be beset by demonstrations of Russian-speaking students protesting against a law that will sharply increase the use of Latvian in Russian-speaking schools.

Spokeswoman Gonzalez today confirmed that minority language rights in education remain one of the most controversial issues in wider EU-Russia talks.

"There are a number of issues linked to the Russian minorities in a number of the future member states of the European Union, notably in terms of [the] right to use [the Russian] language, their own language in education, et cetera, which have been the object of lengthy discussions with our Russian counterparts," Gonzalez said. "[The] discussions continue and we are...committed on both sides to find a solution that would allow the extension of the [EU-Russia] Partnership and Cooperation Agreement on 1 May as smoothly as we can ensure."

Gonzalez said that the EU "understands" Russian concerns over problems facing the transit of goods between the mainland and Kaliningrad, which will be completely surrounded by EU territory after the bloc's enlargement. She said the EU is aware of the Russian fear that the bloc's customs regulations could render the transit of Russian goods uneconomical, and said a "balanced solution" would be found.

In parallel, the EU and Russia are also in what appear to be the final stages of talks over Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Gonzalez today insisted there is "no link" between enlargement talks and discussions on the WTO.

Gonzalez said Russia must address a number of EU concerns before the bloc can give it the green light to join the WTO. She said Russia must liberalize its domestic gas prices, remove export duties for foreign operators, drop the discriminatory transport fees that penalize exporters, and also remove obstacles to the transit of gas from the Caucasus.

Other outstanding issues relate to issues such as regulations governing Russia's financial markets, and the Russian plan to give its national telecommunications giant Rostelekom the monopoly on long-distance calls.

Gonzalez said Russian officials have told the commission they are aiming to conclude the WTO talks in time for the EU-Russia summit in May.