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Europe

Piecing together the Kaliningrad Puzzle

The EU-Russia summit failed to agree today on visa-free travel for Kaliningrad - a Russian enclave that will be in the middle of EU territory after enlargement.

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Fish from the heavily polluted Baltic sea is the staple in Kaliningrad

A lone crime-ridden Russian island surrounded on all sides by EU territory – that’s what will happen once Poland and Lithuania join the European Union.

It’s a scenario that’s causing jitters in Brussels, for Kaliningrad on the Baltic sea – a relic of the Cold War - is bordered by prospective EU members Poland and Lithuania.

So what will happen to this region - one-third the size of Denmark and home to around 1 million people - after EU enlargement?

The question has long been a sticking point between Brussels and Moscow. Today the two sides disagreed on visa-free travel for the Kaliningrad enclave, an issue Russian President Vladimir Putin said was a basic post-Soviet right.

Kaliningrad - going from bad to worse

Kaliningrad has not had it easy.

Known as Koenigsberg until the Soviet Union changed its name in 1946 – the city has historically been the stronghold of Prussian Kings.

It was battered by both the Red Army and the British Royal Force in the Second World War before being occupied, resettled and renamed by Stalin who needed a port for his Baltic sea fleet.

During the height of the Cold War, Kaliningrad was a strong Russian military base. Since the collapse of communism, the Russian enclave has been riddled by organised crime, drug trafficking, prostitution and smuggling.

It is heavily polluted and crippled by communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and diphtheria. The region is also said to have the highest rate of HIV infection in Europe.

Though Kaliningrad was declared a "free economic zone" in 1992 in the hope of attracting foreign investment, inconsistent economic policies pursued in Russia have led to a general economic stagnation in the region.

EU eager to keep crumbling Kaliningrad at arm's length

Little wonder then that the EU’s biggest fear is the long-standing unrestricted movements of Kalingrad’s residents and shuttle traders who regularly commute to neighbouring Poland and Lithuania.

Both East European nations are prospective EU members and Brussels is determined to clamp a more rigorous border control regime in place.

Kaliningrad’s citizens are nonplussed by what they perceive as an attack on their freedom. They are suddenly faced with the prospect of acquiring visas to open the EU gates – where earlier they could saunter into freely.

Poland and Lithuania have already tightened visa and trade policies with Kaliningrad, in compliance with EU conditions for candidate countries. The move has sparked allegations that the Russian enclave is being further isolated.

Visas a prickly issue

The EU insists that Russians will also have to have EU visas to enter and leave Kaliningrad after enlargement, while Moscow demands a right of free transit with visa-free travel through Lithuania, which is expected to join the EU in 2004.

Earlier this year the Russian government presented a memorandum to Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission which insisted on strictly regulated but visa-free travel along set transit routes. Restrictions on the time allowed for passage across EU soil and special sealed trains were further proposals.

But the European Commission has termed the recommendations "unacceptable". Visas are a matter of internal security, says Brussels.

"It’s a question of security. European Union member states want to know who is on our territory," a senior European Commission official told reporters in Brussels.

Vested interests at play?

There are also reports suggesting that EU officials would ask Moscow at the summit to open negotiations on a "readmission agreement" under which it would undertake to take back illegal migrants and refused asylum seekers expelled from EU countries.

That, according to certain diplomats might lead to a trade-off between a Kaliningrad solution and the readmission issue.

Kaliningrad is not just a matter of national prestige to Russian President Putin, who is sticking to his guns over the issue and is determined to retain control of the territory.

Once a major military asset, today Kaliningrad is a stage where Russian’s powerful energy industry play out its politics. Situated at the end of a natural pipeline, this strategic western-most port is the most lucrative way for Russian companies to get into the EU markets.

EU taking more than a passing interest?

But while it appears that the EU is now being forced to take a close interest in Kaliningrad in view of its eastward expansion, Brussels has ensured that it’s not just paying lip service to the region’s problems.

The EU has already committed over 40 million euro to Kaliningrad to combat crime, pollution and disease.

In a meeting in Kaliningrad on May 15, 2002, the EU outlined a package of measures to help the enclave.

They include working with Russia to boost economic recovery in Kaliningrad and assisting with border control and customs infrastructure to ease the issuing of visas and movement of goods.