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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Reopening The Kaliningrad Question

Washington, 8 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Russian government has publicly raised a question -- access to Kaliningrad -- that is likely to dominate discussions of European security after the first round of NATO enlargement later this year.

On Wednesday, the Russian embassy in Vilnius issued a statement denouncing "certain forces" in Lithuania that it said were seeking to question Russia's right to the Kaliningrad region, the former German province that Russia annexed at the end of World War II.

The statement added that these same "forces" were "encouraging Chechen separatists" and thus seeking to undermine good relations between Russia and Lithuania.

But it suggested that these "forces" would not succeed in doing so because both sides would live up to the principles of the July 1991 treaty between Russia and Lithuania that called for each country to respect the territorial integrity of the other.

From one perspective, this Russian embassy statement might appear to be about two issues of concern largely to Lithuania alone: the activities of the small Lithuanian Minor Party which argues that the territory now known as Kaliningrad should be part of Lithuania.

Or alternatively, it might appear to be about the recent invocation of the July 1991 accord by some Lithuanian politicians in order to bolster their arguments that Russia has recognized Lithuania's right to join the Western alliance.

But from another perspective, this statement, although issued in Vilnius, raises a question that relatively few in the West have yet focused on: how will Russia maintain its access to the non-contiguous province of Kaliningrad after Poland is included in NATO.

Since the recovery of Lithuanian independence in 1991, the Russian Federation has had to deal with that problem. Its relations with Vilnius on this question have not always been easy.

On the one hand, Moscow used Kaliningrad to "park" many of the troops it was withdrawing from Eastern Europe and the Baltics before finding places to base them inside the Russian Federation.

Consequently, the issue of military transit and resupply was at the center of discussions between Moscow and Vilnius in the immediate period after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That issue has diminished as the number of Russian troops in Kaliningrad has declined precipitously.

But another problem concerns Russian demands for a special transit regime across Lithuania. Vilnius has resisted Moscow's efforts to codify this in a treaty-like document.

Indeed, in September 1993, the Lithuanian side refused to sign such an accord as part of the package of agreements on the withdrawal of Russian military forces from Lithuania.

In addition to the decline in the number of Russian troops in Kalinngrad during this period, the question of Russian transit across Lithuania was also kept in check by the fact that Moscow could also move goods and people across Poland.

While that has not been a major route for Russian resupply of Kaliningrad, it has been one that both Moscow and Vilnius could point to in pursuit of their own agendas.

Now, however, if as expected Poland becomes a member of NATO in the first round, many in Moscow will be reluctant to count on transit across a NATO member country to resupply part of Russian territory.

Instead, at least some Russian leaders are likely to increase pressure on Vilnius for a special transit regime to allow Moscow to resupply its Kaliningrad region. And they may be counting on Western understanding of Moscow's position to add to that pressure.

Some in Lithuania already view the likelihood of such Russian pressure as little short of a demand for a special corridor across their country and at least as part of a Russian effort to reestablish Russian dominance in the political life of Lithuania.

Moreover, they fear that any show of Western understanding shown toward such Russian demands would inevitably be read in Moscow as a kind of recognition of a Russian sphere of influence, including their country.

The Russian embassy statement will certainly exacerbate such conerns in Lithuania in the coming days, but it is also likely to echo across Europe as a whole in the slightly more distant future.