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Russia/Lithuania: Presidents Applaud 'Progress' In Bilateral Talks

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Russian President Vladimir Putin today signed a common statement on the future of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad once Lithuania joins the EU and maybe NATO. Both heads of state noted that progress has been made during their talks. The agreement seems to have allayed some of Russia's fears.

Moscow, 30 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The meeting of Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended today in the Kremlin with an upbeat declaration expressing understanding for Russia's worries about the possible economic and security consequences of Lithuania's entry into the European Union and possibly NATO. The declaration constitutes a first step in negotiations to reach a mutually-acceptable compromise.

At the end of a three-hour talk, Adamkus called the meeting with Putin "historic," saying that Moscow and Vilnius would make an "enormous" contribution to the "creation of a new Europe." Existing problems should be solved through "political negotiations," the Lithuanian president was quoted as saying.

Putin said he felt that Lithuania and Russia had reached an understanding that Russia should not suffer negative consequences because of EU enlargement:

"Russia welcomes the enlargement of Europe and considers that, of course, in this process, economic interests should be guaranteed, both those of the Russian Federation and those of the potential new members of the European Union. Lithuania is interested in (these guarantees). We have total understanding on this and we agreed on mutual actions in this direction."

Russia is worried that upon joining the EU and NATO Lithuania might be forced to implement the transit regulations of these organizations and in effect cut off the Kaliningrad region from the rest of Russia, thereby encroaching on what Moscow sees as its economic and security rights. Russia is intent on maintaining free transit of people and the shipment of military technology through Lithuania to Kaliningrad.

In a special statement on Kaliningrad, signed by Putin and Adamkus this afternoon, both countries pledged to grant Kaliningrad's inhabitants as much freedom of movement as possible and to improve the rules that regulate the shipment of energy and military equipment through Lithuania.

Putin expressed satisfaction over the agreement.

"We discussed the Kaliningrad case, among other questions. I must say, here also, our approaches are very similar and we optimistically assess our mutual efforts to solve the problem of transit in the Kaliningrad region with other territories of the Russian Federation."

While Lithuania has refrained from promising not to implement any restrictions, the statement still comes close to hopes expressed yesterday by Sergei Prikhodko, the deputy head of the presidential administration responsible for foreign affairs. Prikhodko said that Moscow wanted to hear from Adamkus that Lithuania would not impose visas restrictions on people traveling from Kaliningrad.

Russia is worried that visa-free status that the people of Kaliningrad now enjoy might be replaced by strict EU visa regulations. Another EU candidate, Latvia, announced this week that from now on it is placing a visa regime on Russian citizens in order to comply with EU regulations.

The Kaliningrad problem will be addressed further on Saturday when Adamkus travels there to meet with the exclave's governor. Adamkus is the second head of state to go to Kaliningrad after Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Adamkus and Putin also discussed bilateral economic and political cooperation, security issues, oil and gas supplies, commercial transit through the Claimed and Kaliningrad ports, tariff harmonization, as well as some other issues.

After the talks, Putin explained that meetings at such a high level should not just be pro forma but should set guidelines for determining the course of further development. Putin noted that he and Adamkus discussed several important aspects of bilateral relations.

"We have enough directions [to work on] -- there is cooperation on important international issues, in international affairs, in Europe, in the Baltic Sea region. There are military-political issues. It is also about economic cooperation between [our] two states."

Adamkus was also expected to meet later today with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Federation Council head Yegor Stroyev.

In a speech yesterday at Moscow's prestigious International Affairs Institute, Adamkus also addressed Russian concerns about losing out because of EU and NATO expansion.

Adamkus said he was convinced that Lithuania's membership in the EU would only strengthen the EU's "Northern Dimension." He asserted that "no one" would be disadvantaged by NATO enlargement and that Lithuania's membership in NATO is not directed against any country. Adamkus said that on the contrary "NATO's door has never been -- and, I am convinced, will never be -- shut to Russia."

Earlier today, Putin stressed positive aspects of the two countries' relations. Bilateral commercial exchanges have doubled in the last year, reaching almost $1 billion a year. Russia primarily exports oil and gas, while Lithuania sells Russia agricultural and textile goods.

Consisting of 43 officials and about 50 businessmen, the Lithuanian delegation is the largest that has ever accompanied the Lithuanian president abroad, the BNS news agency reported, reflecting the importance of the visit. Yesterday, Adamkus also met with Russian businessmen and the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a lobbying organ for Russia's most powerful businessmen.

Russia's relations with Lithuania are by far more cordial than its ties with the other Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia. Russia has often accused the governments of those countries of discriminating against their ethnic-Russian minority. Putin did not forego the chance to stress this point, praising Lithuania "for its simple and civilized procedure for granting citizenship to the Russian-speaking population." The Russian media gave Adamkus' visit moderate attention. However, ORT television emphasized Adamkus' past experience as a high-level administrator in the United States, suggesting this enabled him to take a pragmatic approach to Russian-Lithuanian relations rather than adopting the more emotional positions of other Lithuanian politicians.

The channel also noted that Adamkus spoke "fluent Russian like a pre-revolutionary aristocrat" -- which was obviously meant as a compliment.

However, disagreements persist over Lithuania's demand that Russian pay out compensation for the occupation of its territory for 50 years. While Adamkus clearly spoke out against the compensation law last summer, saying it didn't serve the nation's interests, he did tell NTV last night that Russia should compensate for ecological damage caused by Soviet occupation.