Russia and the European Union today sealed a deal to govern travel arrangements between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea and its soon-to-be EU neighbors Poland and Lithuania. The agreement averted a showdown after months of heated rhetoric by Russian leaders who warned of a new "Berlin Wall'' being imposed on their citizens.
The deal, brokered at a summit in Brussels, will require Russians traveling to and from Kaliningrad to obtain a special multiple-entry travel document but stops short of requiring formal visas. Although the issue was seemingly technical, Russia had strongly objected to visas, saying it was as if Canada were to suddenly require visas of Alaskans traveling to the lower 48 states.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who traveled to Brussels for today's summit, said after the meetings: "I don't think the agreement on Kaliningrad is ideal in every way. Free movement of Russian and European citizens to and from their territories will be a permanent solution. This will not be achieved tomorrow, but we should be moving in that direction."
The mixed results and lingering bad feelings were also evident in European comments. "The solution reflects the balance between the interests of the European Union, the candidate countries and the Russian Federation," said Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who led the EU delegation.
The Kaliningrad deal will take effect next year as Poland and Lithuania bring their travel regulations into conformity with the EU, which they will join in 2004. Still to be studied is the feasibility of a high-speed, non-stop train link from the Russian mainland to Kaliningrad, an ancient German trading center once known as Koenigsberg that was taken over by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
Another dispute hung over today's meeting -- one between Russia and Denmark on the issue of Chechnya. The summit had originally been scheduled to take place in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, but Moscow refused to participate after the Danes would not cancel a meeting of the World Chechen Congress days after a Moscow theater audience was held hostage by heavily armed Chechen separatists.
After the summit was moved to Brussels, Europeans continued to press their argument that Russia should seek a political solution to the conflict in the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya, and hundreds of anti-war protesters were reported outside the meeting in Brussels today. "A political solution is the only way to lasting peace,'' Rasmussen told reporters after the meeting.
But Putin in recent days has strongly ruled out peace talks, arguing repeatedly that there is no legitimate Chechen leader to negotiate with and linking the elected Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, to the Moscow hostage-taking.