By Valentinas Mite/Ahto Lobjakas
Lithuanian officials say Russia is impeding talks on implementing the transit agreements made between Brussels and Moscow on the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Senior Lithuanian officials say that if Russia continues to stall negotiations, Vilnius will be left with only one alternative: introducing visas for all Russian citizens, including Kaliningraders.
Prague, 31 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Lithuanian officials say Russia is stalling negotiations over transit arrangements for its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. The exclave will be territorially surrounded by the European Union after Lithuania and Poland join the bloc in 2004, forcing Kaliningraders to transit the EU to reach Russia proper.
An EU official told RFE/RL last week that Russia has been pushing a group of new demands that will reduce the effectiveness of the agreement reached last year between Russia and the EU on the transit question.
Gediminas Kirkilas is Lithuania's presidential envoy on the Kaliningrad issue. He told RFE/RL that Moscow is stalling negotiations with Vilnius on a readmission treaty on the repatriation of people staying in a country unlawfully, and has also delayed ratifying a border treaty.
Kirkilas said Russians appear especially reluctant to move ahead with talks on the readmission treaty. "Yes, recently we've observed that the Russians do not want to call the negotiations 'negotiations.' They say they are 'consultations.' Low-ranking officials are being sent to negotiate. We know this tactics of theirs very well. It means that there is no political decision in Moscow yet. They have not decided whether to sign this treaty or find some ways to postpone it and make it a tool to pressure Lithuania in the future," Kirkilas said.
Last November, Russia and the EU reached a deal under which Kaliningraders will be able to travel with so-called "facilitate travel documents," making their journey through Lithuania easier and cheaper than regular visas.
The agreement is due to come into full force on 1 July this year. Kirkilas said it is vital for both the readmission and the border treaties to be finalized before then in order for the system to function properly.
The Lithuanian envoy said it is not clear why Russia appears to be backing off from its commitment, but that Moscow may be hoping to win some concessions from Brussels during the Russia-EU summit in May. He says the stalling tactics may also be an attempt to curry favor with the Russian public ahead of parliamentary elections in December.
Kirkilas said Russia may also be attempting to take advantage of the current divisions within the EU over the war in Iraq. "I think Russia wants to test the unity of the EU and has hopes that the EU countries are now involved in other problems and will be less likely to defend Lithuanian interests," Kirkilas said.
Kirkilas said Lithuania has scrapped special nonvisa travel for Kaliningrad residents and introduced new transit rules in February. He said some 50,000 people have already crossed the Lithuanian border since the new rules were enforced. Of these, he said, only several hundred were not allowed to continue their travels and were taken off the trains because of improper documentation.
For now, Kirkilas said, a "gentlemen's agreement" between Moscow and Vilnius has taken the place of a permanent readmission treaty, and allows Lithuania to send these people back to Russia.
But, he said, such informal agreements cannot last forever. If Russia refuses to sign the readmission treaty before the 1 July deadline, there will be no "facilitated travel" for Kaliningraders, Kirkilas said. "If Russia does not sign a [readmission treaty], visas will be introduced [from 1 July]," Kirkilas said.
He said Russia wants Lithuania to accept Soviet passports or military certificates as valid documents for crossing Lithuanian borders. But Kirkilas said Lithuania's desire to participate in the EU's Schengen border-control system prevents it from accepting such documents.
"The EU will asses how Lithuania controls its borders when the country joins the Schengen in 2006 or 2007. The EU monitoring group, which will make the assessment is not involved in the negotiations [between Lithuania and Russia]. And if they decide that we do not control our borders efficiently enough -- that we can't control people traveling through our territory and don't know if these people are getting off in Lithuania -- [they will make their conclusions accordingly]. These facts will hinder our joining the Schengen treaty," Kirkilas said.
Kirkilas alleged that Russia, by stalling on the treaty talks, is attempting to sabotage Lithuania's aims of joining the Schengen agreement. "Russian officials -- at least those in the lower ranks -- have never come to terms with the fact that Lithuania is joining the EU and NATO," the envoy said.
Vytautas Radzvilas, an analyst from the Lithuanian Institute of Foreign Relations, told RFE/RL that Russia's tactics on the readmission and border treaties do not come as a surprise.
"Though more than 10 years have passed since the Soviet Union collapsed, there is not a single former Soviet republic with which Russia has ratified a border treaty. There is no doubt that this says Russia acknowledges the independence of these new states only as a temporary fact. And by refusing to ratify border treaties, it leaves the situation open for them to launch an aggression against one those states under the cover of some minor territorial conflict," Radzvilas said.
Radzvilas said Moscow understands that ratification of the border treaty with Lithuania will set a precedent for the entire CIS. He echoed Kirkilas's statement that Moscow may be using its indecision on both treaties to coax certain concessions out of the European Union -- something that is more likely while the EU is divided over Iraq. In particular, he said, France and Germany are seeking economic advantages from warmer relations with Russia.
Presidential envoy Kirkilas agreed. He said France did not support Lithuania during its negotiations with Russia over the Kaliningrad transit issue. He said France's position was part of what ultimately pushed Vilnius to offer its official support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.