Facilitated travel without a hitch

  • 2004-03-18
  • By Steven Paulikas
MOSCOW-VILNIUS - "Good evening, this is the Lithuanian Consular Service," says the officer as he walks through car number six of the Kaliningrad-bound train shortly after its departure from Moscow's Belarusky train station.

This genteel self-introduction, repeated hundreds of times each day on trains traveling to and from Russia's Kaliningrad exclave by Lithuanian officers issuing facilitated travel documents, underscores the calm and civility of a process, once demonized in the Russian press, is now routinely executed without a problem.
After years of tense negotiations, on July 1 of last year Lithuania launched the facilitated travel document and facilitated rail travel document schemes, both of which allow easier transit for passengers who would otherwise require a visa to travel through Lithuania en route to or from Kaliningrad.
According to the program, such passengers-mainly Russian citizens-apply for an FRTD at train stations in Russia at the same time they buy their ticket. Within 24 hours of receiving an application and after processing personal information about each traveler, Lithuanian diplomatic installations in Moscow and Kaliningrad provide notification of the application's status.
Passengers finally receive their documents - which grant them the right to be on Lithuanian soil for up to six hours, and only inside the train - from special Lithuanian consular officers who personally board the train, a first in diplomatic history.
While the program was born in the midst of acrimonious three-way talks between Russia, Lithuania, and the EU, officials on all sides now seem to be pleased with the results.
"This was the first EU directive Lithuania had to implement, even though we weren't even yet full EU members, meaning we were under no legal obligation to do anything-the result was a gentlemen's agreement," said Vaidotas Verba, director of the Foreign Ministry's consular department.
Beginning in 2000, Brussels began pressuring Lithuania, which plans to join Europe's Schengen zone of free travel in 2007, to introduce a system that would ensure that non-Schengen citizens' passage through the country complied with European immigration standards.
Naturally, Russia initiated a counter-offensive to ensure the free movement of its citizens to and from Kaliningrad, which beginning in May will be surrounded by EU territory and eventually by countries belonging to the Schengen accord.
FRTD's are widely regarded as a compromise situation resulting from this diplomatic pincer move.
"It's taken a lot of work to implement this system, which, in truth, hasn't been created out of any national interest of our own," said Ugnius Labutis, director of the FTD program at the Foreign Ministry.
In spite of the difficulties involved in establishing such an involved scheme, Lithuania has received a modest amount of compensation from the EU for its troubles.
Brussels has provided 12 million euros in funding for the project to date and pledged an additional 50 million euros to support it through 2007. This money was used by the Foreign Ministry to create 86 new positions and purchase state-of-the-art equipment, such as the huge digital servers housed in Lithuania's embassy in Moscow that store massive amounts of information on applicants.
The result is a system that efficiently and painlessly reduces travel in the awkward geography of the region to a process some hardly even notice.
"What is there to know about? I bought my ticket, got on the train and now this man gave me this sheet of paper-that's all," said Olga, who was traveling to Kaliningrad from Moscow to visit a relative.
Not all Russians have maintained this level of ambivalence about FTD's. Shortly before and after its introduction, radicals organized demonstrations in Kaliningrad and Moscow, and the Lithuanian embassy was twice vandalized.
Aznor Kikalishvili, a Russian citizen and former presidential candidate who was recently listed as a persona non grata by Lithuanian authorities for his alleged mafia activities, unleashed virulent criticism on Lithuanian officers who did not issue him a FRTD for a rail journey the millionaire had planned in February.
Contrary to widespread suspicion in Russia that FRTDs would hinder travel for its nationals, Kikalishvili was one of only 144 rejected applicants among the hundreds of thousands of successful journeys completed under the system since July.
Perhaps as a result of this high success rate, the vast majority of Kaliningraders have reconciled themselves to the new situation. A survey of passengers in car number six yielded not one complaint.
"It's absolutely no problem," said Vladimir, who was returning to Kaliningrad from a rail journey to Kirghizistan. "You really can't get any more convenient than this. I've never heard of any of my friends complain about it."
With relations between Lithuania and Russia entering one of their most tender phases since independence as the Baltic state permanently turns its back on Moscow in favor of the West, FRTDs serve as a concrete example of how even a diplomatic compromise can help build good faith between the neighboring states.