Russia finally bows to EU pressure for Kaliningrad ‘visas’

Author: By Stephen Castle in Brussels

The European Union and Russia resolved their long-running and acrimonious dispute yesterday over the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, removing one of the final obstacles to Europe’s eastward expansion.

At a summit in Brussels, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, agreed to compromise plans over Kaliningrad but offered no concessions to EU critics of hardline Russian tactics in the Chechen war.

After a series of testy exchanges over Chechnya at the meeting, Mr Putin described the separatists there as “religious extremists and international terrorists”, determined to “kill all non-Muslims”. Russia would not negotiate with those “who want war and who have embarked upon the road of terrorism”, he added.

There was no joint summit communiqué and little pretence that the two sides had reached an understanding over Chechnya. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark, which holds the EU presidency, argued that a “political solution is the only way to lasting peace,” in Chechnya. Chris Patten, the EU’s Commissioner for external relations, said: “I could not say we had a meeting of minds.”

But the commission and the Danish EU presidency clinched an important deal on the issue of travel to and from Kaliningrad, the enclave of about a million people which will be surrounded by EU territory when Poland and Lithuania join the Union in 2004.

Formerly known as Königsberg and once capital of East Prussia, Kaliningrad was captured by the Red Army in April 1945 and ceded to the Soviet Union at the Potsdam conference. It was renamed in honour of the Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin and became the home of the Russian Baltic fleet.

Divisions over Kaliningrad have proved one of the biggest diplomatic obstacles to Europe’s expansion. Mr Putin demanded that Russian citizens be able to travel freely between different parts of its territory. But Brussels insisted some form of control must be put on Russians, who need visas to enter the EU.

Under the compromise struck yesterday, Russians will be able to travel between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia proper by using a multiple re-entry transit pass or a document which would allow for single return trips by train. Travellers will be able to apply for the latter type of document when they buy tickets. Until the end of 2004, both types of travel pass can be used in conjunction with internal Russian identity documents rather than international passports.

EU officials resisted Russian pressure to postpone the 2004 deadline by a further year. However, they agreed to an early feasibility study on setting up fast, non-stop trains between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia, avoiding the need for transit documents. Huge investment would be required to upgrade the rail link.

There was relief from the EU side at the resolution of an issue fraught with difficulty. Mr Putin has presented the row on Kaliningrad as a matter of principle and sovereignty, lobbying EU leaders including the French President, Jacques Chirac, and the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

For its part, the EU was concerned that Kaliningrad could become a source of organised crime, human trafficking and illegal immigration after enlargement. Lithuania fought hard to ensure that any potential concessions to Russian would not compromise its prospects of joining the EU’s Schengen free-travel zone after accession to the EU.

The venue for yesterday’s summit was switched from Copenhagen to Brussels after the Kremlin protested over a Chechen exiles’ conference which took place in the Danish capital just after the theatre siege in Moscow.

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