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Lithuania: Russian Approval Of Border Treaty Anticipated This Year

A border treaty signed by Lithuania and Russia in 1997, but never ratified by Russia, is languishing. The Lithuanians ratified it three years ago, but Russia's State Duma has yet to give it formal approval. Russia says the treaty will be ratified by the end of the year, but officials in Vilnius have heard that before.

Prague, 3 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian officials say Moscow will ratify a treaty marking the Lithuanian-Russian border by the end of this year.

The treaty, delimiting Lithuania's 700-kilometer border with the Kaliningrad exclave and a 50-kilometer sea border with the Russian mainland, was signed in 1997. Lithuania approved it quickly, but the Russian Duma, the lower house of parliament, has not.

The treaty is considered a formality with few practical consequences. Neither Lithuania nor Russia has territorial claims on the other and there are no major disputes resting on the border issue. But Lithuania would like to see a treaty in place soon, as it negotiates to join NATO and the European Union.

Last month (20 May), the head of the Duma's International Relations Committee, Dmitrii Rogozin, said he believed the Duma will approve the treaty by the end of the year.

This belief is seconded by the deputy chairman of the Lithuanian parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Alvydas Medalinskas. As he tells RFE/RL: "I think Russia clearly understands that if it will not ratify the treaty now, before Lithuania joins NATO and becomes a member of the EU, later on it will have to deal with the EU and NATO. These organizations are tougher and more powerful negotiation partners."

Medalinskas says Russia saw how tough a negotiating partner the EU can be in talks last week over Kaliningrad. The exclave is bordered by Poland and Lithuania, both of which are active candidates to accede to the EU.

Moscow was pushing for visa-free travel for Russians in Kaliningrad to visit Russia proper. But the EU held its ground, insisting Kaliningrad residents will need visas to enter both Poland and Lithuania even if their intention is simply to travel to the Russian mainland.

Medalinskas says there is some negative feeling among Russian Duma members because of the visa issue. He also says some deputies are unhappy over a Lithuanian law passed in 2000 that requires Russia to pay for damages caused during the years of Soviet occupation.

Medalinskas says, however, that these reasons are not serious enough to imperil the treaty. He says any outstanding problems can be resolved if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to push for ratification.

Vladimir Zarihin, the deputy director of the Institute for CIS Affairs, a think tank based in Moscow, agrees. He says there are no serious disagreements between Russia and Lithuania, and ratification is being delayed only because of technical problems. "Lithuania differs from the other Baltic states in the sense that it doesn't have national-minority problems. Lithuania has adopted a civilized citizenship law based on so-called 'zero variant' [Lithuania granted citizenship to all residents who lived in the country at the time of the adoption of the law in 1989]. I do not know or haven't heard about any political obstacles which can prevent the ratification and I think the delays are only caused by technical matters."

But Timofey Bordacev, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says the Kaliningrad issue may play a role in Russia's procrastination in ratifying the treaty. He tells RFE/RL that bureaucratic red tape is only part of the story: "On the other hand, red tape can be used as a political mechanism. I am not completely sure, but there is a serious possibility that some officials in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stopped the ratification in order to give [Putin] a negotiating point in talks with the EU on Kaliningrad."

Bordacev says this tactic is not likely to succeed and adds it may even backfire as Russia negotiates border treaties with other former Soviet states. Moscow would like to have these treaties in place as soon as possible but the issue is complicated by the presence of large Russian minorities in many countries.

Bordacev says Russians living in these countries are used to traveling freely to Russia. Any restriction would be understood as a step toward dividing families, and the government would not be inclined to making such a risky political move.