Lithuanian leaders said they were grateful to the European Union for its tough stance on the issue of visas for Kaliningrad residents once Lithuania joined the EU and pledged they would stand behind Brussels on the issue.
Speaking during a visit to the Russian Baltic enclave separated from Russia by Lithuania and Poland, Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas said his government was ready to implement a visa regime with Kaliningrad residents.
"The question of a visa regime for Kaliningrad has been closed,"
Brazauskas said. "We took part in negotiations, but now we have nothing left to discuss. There will be visas for Kaliningrad." European Union External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten reassured Lithuanian officials on July 23 that it would take no decision on the visa issue without consulting Lithuania first.
Russia has objected to plans that would require Kaliningraders to apply for visas after Lithuania and Poland join the EU. The decision would mean Russian citizens would need visas to travel to other parts of their own country because they would have to travel across Lithuania or Poland, both of whom are hoping to join the EU in 2004.
Lithuania and Poland both have strict visa regimes for Russian citizens, but until now both allowed Kaliningrad residents to visit visa-free.Proposals by Moscow to allow Kaliningraders to travel across Lithuania in sealed trains have been rejected by the EU as eerily reminiscent of the Cold War.
Earlier this month, Guenter Verheugen, the top EU official in charge of enlargement, called the transit corridor idea "old-fashioned thinking."
Brazauskas urged Russia to create conditions for establishment of new Lithuanian consulates and border crossing posts so that the new travel procedures cause less inconveniences. He also called for the improvement of infrastructure at border checkpoints with Kaliningrad.
"Establishment of another Lithuanian consulate in the town of Sovietsk could help Kaliningrad residents who will need visas," Brazauskas said. "It is a pity that there is no reaction from Moscow to our propositions."
Brazauskas and other Lithuanian leaders have endorsed the idea of a cheaper, easy-to-receive visa for Kaliningrad residents that would allow multiple border crossings.
President Valdas Adamkus has suggested launching a system of magnetic plastic cards with several levels of protection for transit through Lithuania. He said that such system existed on the Mexican-U.S. border.
EU officials have also backed a simplification of the visa process in this case.
"Visa regime is not a problem of Lithuania. It is an issue for negotiations between Russia and the EU, and Russia should be more active on the issue," said Gediminas Kirkilas, chairman of the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. "It is a problem of Russian diplomacy that they started to be interested in this issue only now."
Russia, however, found an unexpected ally in France last weekend when French President Jacques Chirac bucked his EU colleagues during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and called a visa requirement for Kaliningrad residents "unacceptable" and "humiliating." (See story on Page 6.)
The German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung criticized Chirac for breaking ranks with official EU policy and said his comments would only serve to confuse Lithuania and Poland, which are both in line with the EU position.
Another German daily, Die Welt, went so far as to call Chirac's comments "stupid."