BRUSSELS -- A program funded by the European Union allowing citizens from Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave to cross Lithuania by rail or road to reach the rest of Russia is in jeopardy as EU leaders meet in Brussels on February 20-21 to negotiate the bloc's next multiannual budget.
The program, called the Kaliningrad Transit Scheme, allows Russian citizens to smoothly transit to and from Kaliningrad from other parts of Russia via Lithuania.
It started in mid-2003, a year before the Baltic state and former Soviet republic became an EU member.
The program, in which Vilnius issues special road and rail transit documents to Russians, has so far run without any major hitches and allowed an average of 400,000 Russians to annually travel to and from the Russian Baltic Sea exclave.
However, EU officials familiar with the budget talks have told RFE/RL under condition of anonymity that the current budget proposal could cause major disruptions.
The European Commission's (EC) proposal for the 2021-2027 budget earmarks 139 million euros ($150 million) for the program, down from 157 million euros ($169 million) from the previous seven years.
A recent proposal by European Council President Charles Michel that will act as a blueprint for negotiations between leaders at the Brussels meeting is also suggesting maintaining the same amount as the European Commission.
Officials working with the program, however, estimate that the EU should pay out 215 million euros ($232 million) because an increasing number of Russians are using it and note that the current proposal would mean that the transit program would remain operational for only nine months a year.
Closing it for one quarter every year is an option and could lead to legal challenges since the functionality of the transit is enshrined in EU treaties, as well as Lithuania’s accession to the 27-nation bloc.
There are also fears that potential disruption could increase tensions between Russia and the EU, something that former Lithuanian Prime Minister and current member of European Parliament Andrius Kubilius told RFE/RL.
"The current Multi-Financial Framework proposal by the EC as well as by EC President Charles Michel to decrease funding for the transit to Kaliningrad could contribute to additional geopolitical tensions with Russia by disrupting" its continuation, he said.
Kubilius continued: "We urge both the Council and Commission not to abandon their promise to ordinary Russian people."
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius also warned of the security aspect when asked to comment on the matter:
"Since 2005, more than 6 million Russians have benefited from the EU-Russia special transit scheme, which in practice is fully implemented by Lithuania, using Lithuanian manpower, Lithuanian infrastructural facilities, etc. It is a security issue and if it remains underfunded as it is now, it will contribute to bigger geopolitical tensions and jeopardize EU security."
An EC spokesperson told RFE/RL in a written reply that "the proposal of President Michel is a good basis to start the negotiations. The focus of the efforts of the Commission remains on reaching an agreement. This is necessary to ensure that programs are up and running by January 1, 2021.”