Visas easing the freedom of movement for the residents of the impoverished Russian exclave of Kaliningrad once the surrounding countries of Poland and Lithuania join the European Union are on the table for discussion.
The prime ministers of Poland, Lithuania and Russia met March 6 in the resort of Lesnoi in Kaliningrad to discuss the introduction of visas for people who live in the exclave allowing travel throughout the EU.
The visa issue was also on the agenda at a meeting in the Kaliningrad town of Svetlogorsk of the Council of Baltic Sea States.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov stressed that the visa regime for Kaliningrad residents should be as simple as possible, although he underlined his respect for Lithuania's and Poland's EU accession bids.
"We can't allow a situation where 1 million Europeans (the number of Kaliningrad inhabitants) would be cut off from the rest of Europe. We count on Lithuania and Poland, our friendly neighbors, in solving this issue. We are convinced we can do this without violating EU regulations," said Kasyanov.
Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller responded that the border "will be no new iron curtain."
Kaliningraders, who are currently exempt from Poland's and Lithuania's visa requirements for Russian citizens, will require visas as of July 1, 2003.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas urged Russia to discuss with the EU as well as Poland and Lithuania how visa arrangements could be improved and inconvenience minimized.
Lithuania plans to open a consulate in the Kaliningrad town of Sovietsk, in addition to the existing consulate in Kaliningrad city itself.
There are three border crossing points between Kaliningrad and Lithuania - at Nesterov-Kybartai, Sovietsk-Pagegiai, and Nida on the Curonian Spit, and three between Kaliningrad and Poland - at Mamonov, at Bagrationovsk and Krylovo.
At the Council of Baltic Sea States, Chris Patten, the EU's commissioner for external relations, spoke about Russia's concerns but ruled out any hope of maintaining visa-free regimes.
"We have been increasingly active in addressing the difficult issues that seem of most importance to our friends in Moscow - in particular, visas. We are working intensively with EU member states, and with Lithuania and Poland to define a position that will help us make progress in the EU's forthcoming meetings with Russia," said Patten.
"We cannot override our basic rules here, including the Schengen acquis, nor undermine the enlargement negotiations themselves."
Patten called for action by Russia to issue international passports to Kaliningraders, two-thirds of whom have no international passport partly because at $30 the price is prohibitively high.
The EU hopes Kaliningrad may act as a bridge in relations between itself and Russia. But it is increasingly concerned at the growth of criminality and the poor economic situation in the exclave.
"We know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions," the Russian newspaper Pravda wrote ominously after the talks on March 7.The meeting in Svetlogorsk was attended by the foreign ministers of Russia, Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Russia had tried to insist on an invitation to join the discussions in Kaliningrad being given to Belarus, which lies between it and Lithuania and Poland, but Poland and Lithuania rejected the idea.
The spirit of the meetings was nonetheless positive. On the eve of the formal talks Brazauskas entertained Kasyanov to dinner in the Lithuanian seaside resort of Nida.
"Such personal contact is a very good thing. State leaders need various types of contact. It's a pity Miller had a busy schedule and didn't join us here," said Brazauskas.
On March 6, Brazauskas took the opportunity to meet with representatives of Kaliningrad's ethnic Lithuanian community.
Between 20,000 and 30,000 ethnic Lithuanians live in the exclave.
Local Lithuanians asked Brazauskas to finance the construction of a Lithuanian Cultural Center in Sovietsk, a border town known to Lithuanians as Tilze.
They also complained of problems watching Lithuanian TV because of weak signals.