Lithuania today introduced a form of transit visas for the almost 1 million residents of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. This morning, the first train headed from Kaliningrad to Russia according to the new regulations, which were the result of long, difficult negotiations between European, Russian, and Lithuanian politicians.
Prague, 1 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Starting today, residents and visitors to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad must travel through Lithuania with what are called "facilitated travel documents," a travel pass that acts as a simplified visa.
The scheme marks the beginning of new relations between Lithuania and Russia and the end of a dispute between EU, Lithuanian, and Russian diplomats.
Until recently, residents of Kaliningrad freely traveled to and through Lithuania. Lithuanian and Polish membership in the EU, set for May 2004, changes the situation, however. The exclave will be surrounded by two EU nations, forcing Kaliningraders to transit the EU to reach Russia.
Preserving the rights of Kaliningraders to move freely to Russia, while also protecting the EU's future borders, posed a challenge to Lithuanian, Russian, and EU politicians.
Last November, Russian and EU leaders agreed that from 1 July, Russian citizens crossing Lithuania to and from Kaliningrad by train or car would need to travel using the "facilitated travel documents," which are cheaper and issued more quickly than visas.
Lithuania's chief Kaliningrad negotiator, Gediminas Kirkilas, was on the first train leaving Kaliningrad this morning for Russia. He told RFE/RL the new regulations were functioning as planned.
Today, however, nearly 60 people were taken off trains traveling from Moscow to Kaliningrad because they did not possess valid travel documents. Kirkilas said Russian authorities had not properly informed the travelers about the new requirements. Russian officials admitted their fault in this incident and Kirkilas said that Lithuania will transport the people to Kaliningrad.
Kirkilas said he thinks such problems should disappear in the future. "Problems can be created only if Russians violate the agreed procedures of selling tickets. If they observe it and sell tickets only to those who have the documents agreed [between Lithuanian and Russian governments], there would be no problems," he said.
The new regulations are simple, as long as passengers have valid passports, Kirkilas said: "There are no additional requirements being introduced with which travelers were not familiar before. You just need to buy a ticket 24 hours before you leave."
Lithuanian officials have up to 24 hours to check the documents of travelers and may not allow travelers to board trains if they are considered to pose a danger to Lithuanian national security or if they possess invalid documents.
Many Russian citizens still have Soviet passports, but Kirkilas says this will not hinder their journey through Lithuania. However, he notes that Russian military certificates are not valid documents to cross the border.
Kirkilas admits the new facilitated travel document is basically a visa, albeit a simplified one. He says Lithuania has no choice but to control its borders according to the EU's Schengen border requirements.
Richard Wright, the EU's ambassador to Russia, also traveled on the train this morning from Kaliningrad to Russia to see first-hand how the new system was working. Wright told RFE/RL that he saw no incidents today at the border of Kaliningrad and Lithuania and that the checking of the travel documents went swiftly.
"This went very quickly. It took about 30 seconds or so for somebody with one of these machine-readable documents. So I think in terms of efficiency, it seems to be the best that could be done under the current rules," Wright said.
Wright said he is happy that Russia, the EU, and Lithuania have managed to reach a transit agreement. "Though it took a lot of effort, we achieved the best compromise we could, and I agree that it made relations between the EU, Russia, and Lithuania better and more transparent."
Dmitry Orlov, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, a think tank in Moscow, agrees that there have been few technical problems with issuing the travel documents so far.
"As far as I know, from 15,000 people who asked for permission and bought tickets according to the new regulations, only two persons were refused and, of course, their tickets were refunded," Orlov said.
Orlov added that it is not possible to say that relations between Lithuania and Russia have improved over the issue, but he says they are "more normatively defined." Several problems remain, however, he said.
"[One of the problems is] military certificates, which do not allow passengers to cross the border. Russian soldiers deployed in the Kaliningrad region do not have passports, which are taken by the army and are instead issued military certificates," Orlov said. "It is a serious problem for them. The second problem is children who are not put into parents' passports because earlier it was not obligatory. A birth certificate is not enough. Kids should be put into parents' passports."
However, he said the main problem that remains is psychological. Russian citizens do not want Europe to become a fortress and want to travel to the EU without any visas.
Orlov said Russia will try to use air and sea transport more efficiently so that travelers to and from Kaliningrad can avoid the problem of crossing the Lithuanian border by land.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new, low-cost air link between Moscow and Kaliningrad to counter the effects of the new travel requirements.