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Russia To Close Southern Borders To Appease EU

1 October 2002 MOSCOW, 1 October (Gazeta.Ru)--The only concession Moscow seems ready to make in its long standing battle with the European Union (EU) over the travel regime for Russia's isolated Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad is the tightening of its southern borders.

On 30 September, Russian lawmakers held a parliamentary hearing on the Kaliningrad problem, while in Brussels the EU foreign ministers argued on the timing of launching a feasibility study for a project to construct a high-speed train track via Lithuania. This is the alternative option to a visa regime suggested by Moscow, for Kaliningrad residents travelling to and from the mainland.

The Russian State Duma debated solutions to the so-called Kaliningrad problem on 30 September. For several months now the European Union has been insisting that once Poland and Lithuania join the EU (expected to happen in 2004) the residents of Kaliningrad will be required to have visas to travel through their territory. Russia has expressed strong objection to this idea, stating its residents should be free to travel between different parts of its territory.

On 30 September, the EU reiterated its stance, residents of the region will be required to have a special pass to cross EU territory after the bloc's enlargement. The European Commission has proposed a special travel pass for Kaliningrad residents as an alternative to visas, but Russia claims this pass would amount to nothing more than a repackaged old-style visa system. It says Russians should not have to ask a foreign power for permission to travel to other parts of their own country.

European governments, anxious to guard their countries against criminal gangs, traffickers of both drugs and people, and illegal immigration, have objected to Russia's proposal of arranging visa-free travel for Kaliningrad's Russians in sealed non-stop, high-speed train between Kaliningrad and Russia proper.

On 30 September, Russian lawmakers suggested that in order to prove the high level of security enforced on this train, the Chief of the State Duma's international affairs committee and Moscow's representative in talks with the European Commission, Dmitry Rogozin, should take the case himself to the EU.

State Duma deputies held a parliamentary hearing into the Kaliningrad problem on 30 September, and the only issue addressed was how to circumvent the introduction of visas for Russians wanting to travel to and from the exclave.

According to Rogozin, the commission's proposal is not only unacceptable; it is an insult to Russia.

The Kaliningrad envoy warned the EU: ''If Lithuania introduces a visa regime, we might just open up our borders completely, and then when our illegal migrants pour in, life will no longer seem so easy.''

Russia continues to insist on visa-free travel for its residents. Russia's ambassador for special affairs Valentin Bogomazov laid out the Foreign Ministry's position. He said that if a visa-free regime is introduced, ''the situation will not worsen a bit''. In his words, Moscow is eager to see Kaliningrad benefit, not lose, from the bloc's enlargement.

''It is important to ensure that the region gets extra opportunities in that case,'' adding that Moscow views Lithuania and Poland's willingness to join the EU with understanding, and ''without any allergic reactions,'' the diplomat said.

In the meantime, Rogozin, who presided over the session on 30 September, reported that last year out of 960,000 passengers who traveled by rail to and from Kaliningrad only 180 stayed in Lithuania. Among those was a small group of fleeing Chechen rebels, Rogozin explained. Therefore, in his opinion, ''There is no reason to talk of a migration dangers, or the huge sum that Russia will have to pay to bring those people back''.

In these circumstances, a sober solution, in Rogozin's opinion, would be the conclusion of an agreement on repatriating illegal migrants between Russia and Lithuania. Such an agreement would bind Russia to accept and bring back to its territory citizens who reside illegally in Lithuania.

Rogozin went on to say that such agreements needed to be signed with many other former Soviet states as well, so that they too, would take back their nationals residing illegally in Russia. ''It can no longer be tolerated that our southern borders are wide open,'' he said.

Rogozin's committee for international affairs has already discussed the readmission issue at its sessions. The committee has requested from the Federal Migration Service, the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry all the materials concerning the problem of illegal migration in Russia, so that the head of the committee can report to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the matter.

The EU wants to end the impasse with Russia over Kaliningrad before a summit with Putin in Copenhagen in November. However, observers assume it is highly unlikely that the parties will succeed in solving the dispute in the weeks remaining before the summit.

EU foreign ministers, in a statement after talks in Brussels on 30 September, agreed the Commission proposal ''should provide the basis for discussions with Russia...in close consultation with the candidate countries.'' They took note of the Russian proposal for a non-stop train line between Kaliningrad and Russia proper but stated the decision on a feasibility study for such a project would be taken only after enlargement has taken place.

Last week, some member states led by France called for the immediate launch of a feasibility study. But on 30 September the Commission told the ministers that Lithuania, the country most affected by the plan, had to be fully consulted. Lithuania generally opposes the idea without proper safeguards and some EU states fear the trains would become a gateway for illegal immigrants and smuggling.
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