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Europe

Kaliningrad Problem Inches Towards Resolution

A tricky chapter in EU enlargement negotiations appears on the way to a solution after the EU Commission proposed a special transit pass for residents of Kalingrad to ease their freedom of movement after enlargement.

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A relic of the cold war - the statue of Lenin in Kalingrad

After months of wrangling between Moscow and the EU, residents of the westernmost Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic sea can finally look forward to some semblance of certainty regarding their future travel to mainland Russia.

Surrounded by prospective EU members Poland and Lithuania, the Russian enclave has posed a peculiar problem to authorities in Brussels.

Brussels tackles problem of porous borders

For months they have been grappling with the issue of clamping a more rigorous border control regime in place once the European Union expands to let in Poland and Lithuania by 2004.

Under normal EU rules, the one million residents of Kaliningrad would then need a visa to cross Polish or Lithuanian territory to Russia proper.

But Moscow has vehemently opposed the rules on the ground that they would violate the basic human rights of Kaliningrad’s residents, who at present regularly and unrestrictedly commute to both countries.

Moscow’s demand of visa-free travel for the Baltic island’s citizens earlier in the year was categorically rejected by the EU, which fears that the crime-riddled enclave might export ist notorious drug-trafficking and smuggling to prospective EU members Poland and Lithuania.

A visa that’s not a visa

However the floundering negotiations received a major boost on Wednesday when the European Commission proposed a special passport for the residents of Kaliningrad called a "facilitated transit document" or "Kaliningrad pass" allowing frequent travellers to reach mainland Russia without a conventional visa.

Russian citizens who travel frequently by road or by rail will get a simplified transit document which will allow them to carry out several direct trips between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russian territory", European Commission President Romano Prodi told a news conference.

Prodi said that the special passport will now be discussed by EU member states, the candidate countries concerned and Russia.

He assured that the special passport is fully compatible with the rules of the EU’s "Schengen" zone, which has abolished all internal border controls. He also reassured Lithuania and Poland that the plan would not slow down their own entry into the Schengen zone, expected several years after they join the EU.

"Our proposals fully comply with EU legislation and we guarantee that no further obstacles will be created after internal border controls are abolished between current and future member states," Prodi said.

The special documents would be issued by the consulates of Poland and Lithuania for a "minimum fee" until 2004. The EU has indicated that it might help to fund the issuing of such documents.

However, "Residents of Kaliningrad will require an internationally valid passport beginning 2004," said Prodi. At present, the majority of residents in Kaliningrad do not hold an international passport.

High-speed, non-stop trains far from reality

The EU Commission has reacted warily to Russia’s proposal to enable visa-free travel to and from Kaliningrad in the form of a high-speed, non-stop train. Authorities are reported to be sceptical that the technical groundwork is in place for such a step. The Commission has indicated that it would be ready to consider the proposal after Lithuania’s entry into the EU.

EU foreign ministers will now consider the Commission’s proposals at a meeting in Brussels on September 30.

It will be taken up by EU governments and leaders later in October and if all goes well, the proposal could be sealed at the EU-Russia summit on November 11, 2002 in Copenhagen.

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