Russia and the European Union will try to find a common position on the question of visas for the residents of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad during a summit in Moscow on 29 May. Delegations from the EU and Russia met last week but failed to reach agreement on this main stumbling block. Kaliningrad's residents currently enjoy special traveling status through Lithuania and Poland, but the EU says this cannot continue when the exclave's neighbors -- Lithuania and Poland -- join the EU.
Prague, 22 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and the European Union will meet for a summit on 29 May in Moscow that, among other issues, is expected to focus on visa problems for the residents of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between EU candidate countries Poland and Lithuania.
The residents of Kaliningrad today enjoy visa-free passage through Lithuania and Poland, but both countries plan to introduce visa requirements in the middle of next year, even before their likely accession to the EU in 2004. Russia objects to these plans.
The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said last month that the EU is unwilling to compromise the strict rules of its Schengen visa regime.
Leonello Gabrici, a spokesman for the European commissioner for justice and home affairs, said the EU will have no substantive comment on the Kaliningrad issue ahead of next week's summit in Moscow.
"Normally, the external borders are external borders and internal borders are internal borders. I mean, you cannot have a border with two things at the same time, but I do not know the details of these negotiations," Gabrici said.
Last month, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said Moscow is seeking a compromise that will enable it to retain complete contact with Kaliningrad after the EU's enlargement. He said such a compromise must take into account both the requirements of the EU's Schengen regime, "as well as the specific nature of Kaliningrad as part of the Russian Federation."
But at a meeting on 15 May of the Russia-EU Cooperation Committee in the Kaliningrad city of Svetlogorsk, the EU rejected Russia's request for visa-free transport corridors through Poland and Lithuania to allow the free movement of people and goods.
Although Lithuanian officials did not take part in last week's meeting, Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Evaldas Ignatavicius told RFE/RL that Vilnius' attitudes were fully represented by Catherine Day, the European Commission's deputy director-general for external relations, who led the EU delegation in Svetlogorsk.
"Actually, the positions of Lithuania and the EU on the main problems of Kaliningrad do not differ," Ignatavicius said.
Lithuania has significant economic interests in the exclave and is Kaliningrad's biggest trading partner, followed by Poland and Germany. Ignatavicius said Lithuanian trade with Kaliningrad amounted to about $120 million last year. More than 460 Lithuanian-Russian ventures operate in the exclave, which has a population of almost 1 million. Ignatavicius said Lithuanian capital is present in almost all levels of Kaliningrad's economy.
Ignatavicius said he believes the introduction of visas "will only help to make business more civilized."
According to Ignatavicius, one of the biggest problems with travel between Kaliningrad and Lithuania is the lack of border crossing points. He said this situation needs to be addressed regardless of the outcome of the EU-Russia summit.
"The border crossing points must be built one way or another. It is impossible to justify the present situation. The people [traveling to Kaliningrad and from it] have to queue for long hours at the border. Any businessman who respects himself after such an experience would have no wish to visit Kaliningrad once more," Ignatavicius said.
Ignatavicius said the EU has indicated its willingness to offer financial investments to help build more border crossing points and to ease the cost of introducing visas and issuing foreign passports.
Aleksandr Karetskii is the head of the Kaliningrad administration's Information Committee. He said there are two kinds of passports in Russia. One passport is only valid inside the country and the other one is used for traveling abroad. Karetskii told RFE/RL that only one-third of people living in Kaliningrad have passports valid for traveling abroad.
He said the introduction of visas will put Kaliningrad's residents and the authorities in a tough situation.
"[In this case,] every citizen [living in Kaliningrad] should be issued a foreign passport. We are able to issue 50,000 passports a year. To upgrade it, you will have to pay for a visa. The living standards of Kaliningrad residents are much lower than those in the EU, and not every resident of Kaliningrad, especially pensioners, would find money to pay for a visa," Karetskii said.
Karetskii said the introduction of visas would be a violation of the rights of Kaliningrad's people to move freely. He said many of the exclave's residents have relatives in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine and in other parts of the former Soviet Union.
Kaliningrad, formerly East Prussia, became part of Russia after World War II and hosts a major Russian naval base. Russia deploys some 25,000 troops there but promises to decrease the number in the future.