Chirac backs Russia on Kaliningrad visas

  • 2002-07-25
  • Igor Gedilaghin

French President Jacques Chirac offered support July 20 to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue of Kaliningrad, saying it would be "unacceptable" if citizens of the Russian Baltic enclave needed visas to travel to the rest of the country.

The European Commission on July 22 downplayed Chirac's statements.

An informal one-day summit in this Black Sea resort wrapped up with France also muting its criticism of Moscow's military crackdown in Chechnya, in a bid to overcome the recent strain on diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Officials said Chirac and Putin had been able to establish a more personal rapport during the meeting, which took place July 20-21.

Chirac broke ranks with EU partners by challenging the proposed visa regime for Kaliningrad residents, which is expected to go into effect once its neighbors, Lithuania and Poland, join the European Union in 2004.

"I feel the visa system imposed on Russians to go from one place in their country to another place in their country is unacceptable," he said.

Kaliningrad was as the main topic in talks, which seemed to have forged stronger personal ties between the two leaders.

Brussels has insisted on establishing the visa requirement from July 2003 onward for Russians passing through Lithuania and Poland, which cut Kaliningrad off from the rest of Russia. Further EU debate on the subject was set for July 23.

A European Commission spokesman said July 22 Chirac's statement was meant to convey the feeling that "he didn't want a system that was humiliating to Russia — neither do we."

Moscow fears that the 1 million residents in Kaliningrad, surrounded by future EU members, will be cut off from Russia.

While Chirac called the proposed visa regime "humiliating," he suggested that the problem was of a "technical" nature and could be resolved by creating an alternative system, which was not specified.

In another conciliatory gesture, France also toned down its criticism of Russian operations in the breakaway Caucasian republic of Chechnya after having come out early as one of its strongest critics following the beginning of the military operation there in October 1999.

Chirac said he hoped for an "engaged" political solution for the region, calling it "the only possible solution."

Putin indicated that the military campaign, intended as a lightning strike, was near its end, saying that Russia aimed to "build up the structure of Chechen security forces" and finish training pro-Russian local forces "before the end of the year."

Moscow has admitted that nearly 5,000 of its troops have been killed in the fighting, and human rights organizations have slammed them for abuses and attacks that have killed an estimated 10,000 civilians.

The Sochi summit follows a model of personal meetings set up between Putin and a number of world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

The informality included Putin accompanying Chirac back to his hotel after the summit's first night, a gesture which Chirac described as "touching."

The two heads of state then decided on an impromptu drink - of the French mineral water Perrier - at the hotel bar, followed by a bit of jocular jousting in public.

This included a brief chat with the hotel's French chef, who sheepishly admitted that he did not speak Russian.

"It is not important if he has not yet learned Russian," Putin told Chirac. "The main thing is that he still knows French cooking."

After meeting Putin, Chirac flew to Geneva and then traveled on to the nearby French town of Annemasse, where he met United Arab Emirates leader Sheikh Zayed ben Sultan al-Nahyane.