Kaliningrad residents balk at EU plan

  • 2002-09-26
  • Arturas Racas

Residents of Russia's Baltic exclave Kaliningrad said this weekend they feared that a European Union plan for special passes to allow them to reach mainland Russia after the bloc expands would cut them off even more from their country.

"I don't understand why I need a visa to travel to my own country," said Sergei, a 38-year-old doctor from Kaliningrad, as he boarded a train headed from Kaliningrad to Moscow via the ex-Soviet state of Lithuania.

He was referring to a proposal from the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, last week to propose a special pass for the nearly 1 million citizens of the enclave after neighboring Poland and Lithuania join the bloc as expected in 2004.

Moscow has been vigorously pressing for visa-free travel for Kaliningrad residents after EU enlargement, and the issue has seriously soured bilateral relations between the bloc and Moscow.

The majority of those interviewed as they boarded the train at the Lithuanian border post of Kybartai said they feared the introduction of proposed special transit passes would make their life more difficult.

"Visas or some other papers you may decide to introduce will cause us problems," Sergei said, referring to the cost and time needed to buy them, as he headed with his 28-year-old wife Victoria and 5- year-old son Oleg, to mainland Russia to visit his mother, a journey, he said, he usually makes twice a year.

"Why can't you use a special carriage - then we could enter and not get out as the train crosses Lithuania," Vladislav, a 71-year-old pensioner said, sharing smoked sausage and sauerkraut with his daughter-in-law as they dug in for a four-and-a-half day journey to Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

The daughters of both Vladislav and Galina live in Kaliningrad, and they say they visit them at least once every two years.

"We try even not to think about this," Galina, said.

Lithuanian border guards said they were also afraid of the EU's proposed rules. They said they checked documents only of those Kaliningrad residents who got off the train in Lithuania: Only eight of them had got off a recent train.

"What shall we do if we have to check all the passengers, about 2,000 transiting every day now and some 6,000-9,000 during the summer time?" said Robertas Fiseris, head of the border guards' shift.

"We can't use scanners as old Russian passports can't be scanned, and the majority of them traveling on this train do have all documents you could imagine except passports. How can we check them and how many people shall we need," he said.

Raisa, a 51-year-old teacher heading for Nizhny Novgorod, 400 kilometers from Moscow, to visit her husband and son, shared the Lithuanian border guard's concerns.

"Please tell Brussels to change their minds, as it would be very hard for people," she said.

The EU plan will be put to the 15 EU countries for approval ahead of the next Russia-EU summit in Copenhagen on Nov. 11. Moscow has threatened to boycott the summit if the Kaliningrad dispute is not settled.

Kaliningrad, which used to be the Prussian town of Koenigsberg, became cut off from the rest of Russia after Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991.