Russian President Vladimir Putin and European Union leaders have agreed on a compromise pact to ease travel between Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia after the EU expands in 2004. Both sides claimed yesterday after a summit in Brussels that the compromise was a boost for the EU-Russia "strategic partnership." However, extensive press interest in Chechnya marred the post-summit atmosphere, highlighting the one question that leaders on both sides appeared to want to avoid.
Brussels, 12 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The EU-Russia deal on Kaliningrad has for the time being removed the largest stumbling block from the path of the "strategic partnership" both sides are keen to build.
The deal provided a perfect backdrop for joint declarations on the fight against terrorism and the Middle East, together with promising discussions on foreign- and security-policy cooperation and evolving trade relations.
The only thing missing was a meeting of minds over Chechnya. In the past, the European Union has been keen to address the issue in the customary joint declarations, but this time putting Chechnya on the agenda was largely left to the press after the summit.
The stakes at the summit were unquestionably high. Kaliningrad was becoming a considerable problem for the entire enlargement process, besides seriously souring the EU-Russia relationship.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the deal on Kaliningrad struck exactly the right balance. "Today, I am happy to announce that we have reached an agreement on the question of transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation. It is a balanced agreement, which takes into account the Russian need for transit to and from Kaliningrad, as well as the Lithuanian right to exercise full sovereignty on Lithuanian territory," Rasmussen said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed, saying the compromise was "acceptable," although he qualified this by saying it was not "ideal." Russia's longer-term aim remains visa-free movement between Russia and the entire EU. "Our discussions allowed us to examine thoroughly the consequences of the upcoming enlargement of the EU. The most important among them was to secure the interests of Kaliningrad. For us, this is an acute problem, and we are satisfied with the results achieved," Putin said.
The deal on Kaliningrad largely follows earlier EU compromise proposals. Lithuania, which will introduce visas on 1 January 2003 as demanded by the EU, will now apply them "flexibly" until 1 July, when new transit arrangements take effect. "Flexibility" is defined in yesterday's EU-Russia joint statement on Kaliningrad as the need "not to disrupt the traditional flow of transit passengers by rail."
From 1 July, two types of transit documents will become available to Russian travelers. One, the "facilitated transit document," functions essentially as a multiple-entry visa and is to be issued by Lithuanian consulates. The other, the "facilitated rail transit document," will be issued to Russian rail-ticket holders at the Lithuanian border. These transit arrangements will be "reviewed" in 2005.
Throughout, Lithuania is said to retain its "sovereign right" to stop any Russian citizens at its borders. The EU will also cover most of the costs incurred by Lithuania and Russia as a result of the arrangements.
Another joint document presented by EU officials was a declaration on terrorism. The declaration condemns terrorism in all its forms and states that the EU and Russia are together "part of the nucleus of the global coalition against terrorism." The document also sets out rules for the exchange of information on suspected terrorists, their supply of arms, and finances.
The joint declaration strongly condemns October's hostage taking in Moscow and says it cannot "be defended or justified for any cause."
This is as close as the documents emerging from the summit come to mentioning Chechnya.
EU officials, speaking privately to journalists, had difficulty explaining the EU's position on Chechnya beyond saying that well-known concerns were voiced. Some said the EU has accepted that international terrorist groups are involved in Chechnya and that Putin had won recognition for his recent meetings with the Russian-appointed Chechen administration.
At the post-summit press conference, Rasmussen did make it clear that the EU remains "very concerned" about the situation in Chechnya. "The conflict in Chechnya cannot be regarded only as a terrorist problem. A political solution is the only way to a lasting peace. The European Union will continue to closely follow the developments. Both sides must respect human rights, and those who don't must be brought to trial without delay," Rasmussen said.
However, it was Putin who fielded most of the questions on Chechnya, sometimes to the discomfort of his EU hosts.
Putin unequivocally ruled out talks with Chechen rebel leaders. He said Russia would only engage in a "political process" with those Chechens who give up armed struggle, adding that the fight against "bandits and terrorists" was a separate issue and would go on.
Putin went to great lengths in describing the threat emanating from Chechnya, saying the overriding goal behind it was to establish a "world caliphate" from which no Christian, atheist, or moderate Muslim would be safe. "The creation of a caliphate on the territory of the Russian Federation is only part one of their plan. In fact, if you are following the situation, you surely know that the radicals are pursuing a larger goal: They are talking about the creation of a world caliphate and the need to kill Americans and their allies," Putin said.
None of the EU representatives present at the press conference reacted to the warning.