Vilnius signals agreement on EU Kaliningrad deal

  • 2002-10-31

European Union leaders last week endorsed a plan aimed at ending a bitter dispute with Moscow over Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, an issue that has overshadowed EU enlargement in the region.

"We have reached an agreement on Kaliningrad," said Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "On its basis we will continue our negotiations with Russia.

Under the compromise plan, Kaliningrad residents will be offered special transit passes starting in July 2003 to travel through Lithuania, which will be easier to obtain than a regular visa.

The deal also calls for a study of the possibility of letting Kaliningrad citizens travel to Russia proper through Lithuania without visas in special high-speed trains.

For EU leaders the compromise is a breakthrough in a long-standing dispute with Russia concerning the travel rights of the one million residents of Kaliningrad, a province cut off from the rest of Russia by Lithuania and Belarus and bordered by Poland.

When Lithuania and Poland join the EU in 2004, Kaliningrad, formerly the German province of East Prussia, will be surrounded by EU members. Initially the EU had insisted that regional residents obtain transit visas to cross Lithuania on their way to Russia.

Russia angrily objected, vowing to fight for visa-free rights for Kaliningraders.

Caught in the cross-fire, Lithuania helped make the preliminary deal possible by reversing its initial opposition to visa-free travel and saying it could accept visa-free trains that would allow Kaliningrad residents to pass through the country en route to Russia.

Lithuanian leaders had initially balked at the prospect and were concerned about the implications of any Kaliningrad deal on the country's hopes of joining the EU's Schengen agreement, which abolishes border controls among most EU member states.

At an EU summit in Brussels last week, Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas said he was at ease with the EU's softer stance. "We're being consulted. So far we are satisfied. I have no doubt regarding a positive resolution of the matter," he said.

EU leaders said they had agreed to make "a special effort to accommodate the concerns of all parties involved concerning the future transit of persons between Kaliningrad region and other parts of Russia."

According to the conclusions, the EU leaders acknowledged "the unique situation of Kaliningrad region as part of the Russian Federation."

The two sides are expected to continue talks and to seal a final agreement at an EU-Russia summit in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, scheduled for Nov. 11.

However, considering Moscow's fiery protest to a conference on Chechnya held in the Danish capital, one attended by Chechen separatists, Rasmussen decided to move the Nov. 11 summit to Brussels.

Denmark currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU.

Earlier this week, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said that after the latest negotiations, Russia now recognized the need for a "simple visa regime" to enable residents of the enclave to transit across Lithuania.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has confirmed that progress had been made.