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Russia: Kaliningrad's Isolation May Grow As Its Neighbors Join EU

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad, the westernmost region of Russia, found itself separated from the mainland by several sovereign states. Should its neighboring countries, Lithuania and Poland, succeed in joining the European Union -- with its unified economy and strict border controls -- the Russian enclave may find itself isolated even further. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu reports on the growing physical and psychological distance between Kaliningrad and Russia proper.

Moscow, 9 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Is the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad -- the small piece of land lying to the west of Lithuania and the north of Poland -- headed for an identity crisis?

As their neighbors prepare to join the European Union, Kaliningraders -- who say they often feel closer to Europe than Russia -- may find themselves growing even more isolated from the Russian mainland. And the strict visa and travel required by EU countries may highlight the distance not only psychologically, but physically as well.

As the date of EU expansion nears -- and with it the enacting of the Schengen accords, which allows freedom of movement for EU members within the Union -- the question of free travel between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia remains unresolved.

Vladimir Nikitin, the chairman of the Kaliningrad regional parliament, says the issue is a top concern for the enclave. He says that any restrictions on travel between Kaliningrad and Russia proper will have serious consequences for the enclave:

"The region of Kaliningrad may have a lot of problems after Poland and Lithuania join the EU. The first problem is that of [free travel across those countries'] borders. We have yet to get an answer from Moscow and from Brussels about how we Kaliningraders will be able to cross the border of Lithuania after it becomes an EU member. What kind of visas are we going to have? Will it be a multiple-entry visa? How much will [it] cost?"

Gilbert Dubois, deputy EU ambassador to Moscow, says resolution of the Kaliningrad issue is of key interest to the Union. He says EU officials have already discussed the visa question on several occasions:

"The Schengen system does not allow Poland or Lithuania or any other country to [adopt] special measures for neighboring countries. But there are special provisions in the Schengen system that allow special cases for border neighbors. We think that these special provisions [could] be applied by Poland and Lithuania in agreement with the rest of the members of the Schengen Union. Probably there will be special facilities. I don't think any special decision has been made yet, but Polish authorities and Lithuanian authorities are well aware of the difficulties that might [arise]."

Lithuania has demonstrated its willingness to compromise on certain travel issues affecting Kaliningrad. The Baltic News Service reported today that Lithuania will continue to make an exception for the enclave's Kaliningradavia airline, which has not met certain safety requirements in place since April.

The director of Lithuania's state-run Air Navigation enterprise, Algimantas Rascius, said imposing stricter requirements would result in Kaliningrad being isolated. He also said that his company would lose a substantial part of its income if it were to prohibit flights to and from Kaliningrad.

A second aspect of the enclave's isolation is psychological. Even though Kaliningrad is part of the Russian territory and most of its residents are ethnic Russians, many people there feel detached from Russia. Many Kaliningraders, in fact, have never been to Russia proper.

Oksana Maitakova, a journalist with Baltic Plus Radio, says that official statistics indicate that 80 percent of young Kaliningraders have never been to Russia but have traveled to Poland or the Czech Republic on numerous occasions.

Maitakova says: "Going to Russia for the weekend is more expensive than going to Poland. The problem is that a train going to Russia has to pay a transit fare in the Lithuanian territory, and consequently the fares are higher."

Maitakova says separatist sentiment is growing in the enclave, with many Kaliningraders joining the Baltic Republican Party, which supports a more flexible relationship with Russia.

Some polls put Kaliningraders' support of the Baltic Republican Party at just 5 percent. But party leader Sergei Pasko says the actual figure is actually closer to 50 percent. He says the party's aim is to make Kaliningrad a member of both Russia and the EU:

"We want to be an associate member of the Russian Federation, and [at the same time] we want to send a request to the EU to become its associate member. We don't expect to have all the rights as a [full] member of the EU, but we'd like for our region to have some rights and duties [as an EU member country]. We think that it is possible to have this kind of [EU] status."

Some Russian media have reported that talks have been conducted in Brussels considering the possibility of accepting Kaliningrad as an associate member. But deputy EU ambassador Dubois says that the only way Kaliningrad could receive EU membership would be if Russia were to join the Union:

"Kaliningrad is a part of Russia. If Russia becomes a member of the European Union -- and some people think that [could be] possible in the long term, in 20 to 30 years, who knows -- then Russia and all [its] 89 regions, including Kaliningrad, will become full members of the EU. [Otherwise] it is impossible, according to our [principles] and also according to the Russian Constitution, that a part of Russia will become a member of the EU while the rest will not be included. It is impossible both legally and constitutionally."

Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was time to rethink the future of Kaliningrad's development in light of the expanding European Union and the changing potential of the Russian economy.

"The Kaliningrad region," Putin said, "may serve as a testing ground for interaction between Russia and Europe."