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Not just a train passing through

  • 2002-10-31
  • Tony Pappa
Gediminas Kirkilas is chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Lithuanian Parliament and a member of the Lithuanian-Kaliningrad forum. He was appointed by President Valdas Adamkus as special envoy on Kaliningrad affairs. Tony Pappa spoke with him Oct. 29.

Can you describe your role in the Kaliningrad border issue?

President Adamkus wanted to appoint a special envoy for direct negotiations with Mr. Dmitri Rogozin. Mr.Rogozin is the Russian designate to Kaliningrad concerns and other EU issues appointed by President Putin. Both Lithuania and Kaliningrad have 15 parliamentarians working on this issue. I have to coordinate the efforts of all the officials, bodies and commissions in Parliament and the Defense Ministry here in Lithuania.

Can you give us a bit of history of what's at stake?

Lithuania is very interested in entering the Schengen Agreement with the first group of countries. And the EU wants good diplomatic relations with Russia. One month ago Lithuania denounced the visa-free train regime we presently have with Russia, so it will cease to exist beginning in January. But the EU is asking us to delay any action on the visa-free tain until June 1. This will allow us, the Russians and the EU to set up the Facilitated Transit Document (FTD). But we are satisfied with the EU decision to implement FTDs for Kaliningrad residents beginning next July. We also need time to set up a much needed readmission agreement with Russia.

Can you tell us more about this agreement?

If, for example, 57 people get off the train in Lithuania and most of them are Chechen, currently we have no possibility to get them back to Russia. Once we sign a readmission agreement we have the possibility to return these people to Russia.

What is the delay in signing the agreement?

Five or six years ago a border agreement was proposed and signed by presidents Brazauskas and Yeltsin. It was ratified on our side, but not on the Russian side. The main reason given by the Russian Duma was that Lithuania was aspiring to join NATO. There was also the question of compensation for the occupation.

Is this all it will take to resolve the issue?

No. In order to give Russian citizens FTDs or visas, we also need more consulates. We've proposed that Russia set up additional consulates both here and in Belarus, but they have not responded yet.

But in order to get the job done for Schengen, we need to establish a readmission agreement, ratify the border agreement, set up additional consulates and institute the FTDs. We are capable of giving 1,000 visas or FTDs per day. There is no technical problem with us facilitating transit because every year only 40,000-50,000 people attempt to get a visa.

How are negotiations going?

Lithuania has a lot of experience negotiating with Russia. I think the most important experience was in 1992-93 over the Russian army withdrawal from Lithuania. It was much more complicated then because at that time we didn't have the EU or NATO backing us.

Right now, it seems that Russia will agree at the upcoming EU-Russia summit in Brussels. Unofficially they have accepted all proposals from the EU on the Kaliningrad issue with the exception of the visa-free train issue. The most sensitive point is this train.

Why is it such a sensitive topic?

The first Lithuanian proposal was to provide a cheaper and simplified visa process. But Russia didn't like the thought that its Kaliningrad residents might get Schengen visas because if young people get these visas they might just go west. They have accepted the FTD because it is a document that only allows people entry into Lithuania.

But I believe that in the future Russia will forget about this issue, particularly after the Russian Duma elections. Right now they've put this issue on the table. Politicians ask: "Where are our people's rights? Russian people have rights to get from one town to another town in Russia." But on this road there is a future European Union member.

Are there any other possible solutions?

In the next year, we will need to start a feasibility study about a no-visa "fast train" through Lithuania. For any fast train project we'll need approximately 400 million euros. In the feasibility study we need to consider legal and technical issues.

Would the EU subsidize a fast train across the country?

Yes, this is something they have promised. But not all EU countries support this issue. There is not a consensus. But some countries, France for example, are very interested in this project. They have TGV. It seems also that Germany and Italy are also interested. But the Scandinavian countries don't seem to support the idea.

Are there any Russian proposals?

They would like to possibly subsidize the difference between the price of a plane ticket and that of a train ticket. But the Kaliningrad airport is primarily military and would need improvement. The price tag is approximately 100 million euros to subsidize a plan like this over 10 years.

What other factors are at play?

The main problem with Kaliningrad is its economic and social future. Five years ago we were talking with the politicians in Kaliningrad about projects setting up a free economic zone. When Putin came to power, these discussions stopped. Now Lithuania is the biggest investor in Kaliningrad. Lithuania and Poland account for more than 80 percent of the investments in the exclave. They don't get enough money from Moscow for economic and social development projects. It's terrible.

More than 40 percent of the people who live in Kaliningrad have never been to mainland Russia. They've been to Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, but not Russia. There are a lot of pensioners and military forces, not enough young people interested in starting business. It's a social-demographic problem.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I hope we will find compromise with Russia. The only issue remaining is the visa-free train. We have 6 or 7 months to resolve this issue. We need to find a technical solution. We'll be ready when the time comes because we understand EU-Russian issues and Lithuanian-Russian economic issues. We have great economic ties with Russia. They are the fifth largest investor in Lithuania. And we are also interested in reforms in Russia.