Putin Surrenders Kaliningrad
12 November 2002
BRUSSELS, 12 November (Gazeta.Ru)--The Russia-European Union (EU) summit in Brussels has ended in defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the entire Russian delegation which had been negotiating throughout the year to solve the so-called Kaliningrad problem.
The two parties reached an agreement on 11 November restricting travelling rights for residents of Russia's Baltic enclave. Simultaneously, the EU failed to convince Putin to soften his stance on the situation in Chechnya. Visibly irritated by the Western community's pressure for an end to the war in Chechnya, the Russian president later made an uncharacteristic statement at a press conference.
The solution to the Kaliningrad problem, hailed by the Europeans since it removes the final obstacle on the road to EU enlargement, was not as Russia had hoped for. The Kremlin, despite all its efforts, was forced to acquiesce to the EU's proposal envisaging the introduction of special travel documents for Russian citizens travelling between the enclave and the Russian mainland via Lithuania.
The Kaliningrad debate has overshadowed Russian-EU relations for more than a year now. Regarding EU expansion eastwards, European states voiced concern that once Lithuania and Poland join the bloc in 2004, the Russian enclave might pose a serious threat to European security, believing that it could become a center of crime, human trafficking and illegal immigration.
The EU, therefore, had been pressing for the introduction of visas for Russians traveling by car or train via Lithuania and Poland, beginning 2003. For its part, Russia demanded that its citizens must be able to travel freely to and from the enclave, citing their constitutional right to freedom of movement. Initially, Moscow rejected the EU proposal for facilitated travel documents (FTD) saying that they amounted to a surrogate visa regime.
Finally, however, Moscow bowed to EU pressure and agreed to the FTD for Russian travelers. The joint Russia-EU statement says that transit [via Lithuania] be visa-free in order ''to ensure easy passage of borders for legal purposes with a view to facilitate human contacts and promote the development of the Kaliningrad Region.''
According to the joint statement, ''the European Union will introduce the necessary legislation to establish by 1 July 2003 a Facilitated Transit Document (FTD) scheme to apply for the transit of Russian citizens only between Kaliningrad and other parts of Russia by land.''
Under the agreement, Russians will travel to and from the enclave with either a multiple re-entry transit pass or a "light" document involving single return trips by rail. Lithuanian consular offices will issue multiple entry passes, while "light" documents for train trips will be issued at the border.
It is assumed that it will be much easier to get the latter document than a pass. According to the statement, the "light" pass will be issued free of charge, or at a very low cost. Apparently, European officials have not yet agreed on that point, but since it is unlikely that Lithuania would willingly assume the costs for printing the FTD and paying salaries to the employees of consular offices who will issue those documents. It is unlikely they will be issued free of charge. Yet, the EU officials chose not to raise the issue in Brussels to avoid traumatizing Putin.
To sweeten the bitter pill for the Russian leader, the EU agreed to a feasibility study next year on fast-running, non-stop trains between Kaliningrad and Russia proper, which could sidestep the need for Russian documents. Earlier, the EU had said such work could not be considered until Lithuania joins the bloc.
And yet, despite the EU's consent to launch the project earlier (one which is unlikely to be implemented since it would require a huge investment to upgrade the rail link), Russia has lost the battle for Kaliningrad.
The defeat is crushing and irrevocable. It is unlikely that Putin will spend billions to console his hurt pride, especially as Russia now faces far more important problems than the accused violation of its constitutional travel rights. Those Russians who by 2005 fail to get a foreign travel passport will have to travel to and from the enclave by ferry or by air.
But the Kaliningrad issue was not the only matter heatedly debated at the Russia-EU summit. At the news conference after the summit Putin made a sensational statement on Chechnya.
When asked to comment on the situation in Russia's separatist province, the president began by saying that ''no one can rebuke Moscow for suppressing freedom in Chechnya.''
According to Putin, in 1996 Russia granted Chechnya de-facto sovereign status. But in 1999 Islamic militants attacked Dagestan, seeking to set up a caliphate. ''What has that got to do with independence in Chechnya? Who can answer that question?'' Putin demanded of the journalists.
Then he went on to say that, the creation of a Muslim state on Russian territory was only the first stage of a larger-scale plan by the international terrorists. They had intended, according to the Russian leader, to kill Americans and their allies. ''Correct me if I am wrong, you belong to representatives of the allies,'' Putin said, addressing the reporter who had asked him about Chechnya, ''then you, too, are in danger.''
Putin continued, saying: ''if you are an American--you are in danger. If you are a Christian you are in danger. If you are an atheist--you are also in danger. And even if you decide to become a Muslim and to get circumcised, you will probably still be in danger. I know many places in Moscow where this [operation] can be performed. I recommend you do it so that nothing ever grows there again.''
The outburst was followed by a terrible silence in the conference hall. It seemed to take the audience some time to digest Putin's words. Then he went on: ''If we do not fight the bandits, we will have them not only in Moscow, New York and Washington, we will have them in many other countries of the world.''
What circumcision and the places in Moscow where it can be done have to do with combating terrorism, none of those present could quite fathom. Presidential aides, forced to explain what he had meant by those words after the news conference, said that the president ''was exhausted'', and that ''he is sick and tired of Chechnya.''