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EU, Russia Feud Over Visas - 2002-07-24

The European Union has turned down Russian demands that residents of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad not be required to obtain visas when they travel through EU countries to get to Russia proper. The visa dispute has come to dominate EU-Russian relations in recent weeks.

Kaliningrad is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. At present, its residents do not need visas to enter either country. But when Poland and Lithuania become members of the European Union, probably by the year 2004, they will have to abide by EU rules that require visas for Russian citizens entering EU territory.

Russia says it is inadmissible that its citizens traveling between the enclave and Russia proper should have to obtain visas - even if they do transit EU territory. It has proposed a visa-free corridor between Kaliningrad and Russia and suggested that so-called "sealed trains," that would not stop in EU territory, be allowed to link the enclave with Russia proper.

At a meeting in Brussels Wednesday between EU and Russian officials, the European Union rejected those ideas, saying it must abide by the visa rules agreed to by all 15 EU countries and the 10, mostly Eastern European countries, that are on track to join the bloc in the next two years.

EU diplomats say they understand Russian concerns and are searching for a solution that respects EU laws as well as Russian sensitivities.

The European Union is proposing cheap, multi-entry visas for Kaliningrad residents and has offered to help fund infrastructure and improve controls on the enclave's borders. But Russia is insisting that Kaliningrad's unique geographic position warrants an exemption from EU visa rules.

Talks on the issue are scheduled to continue. The European Commission, the EU's executive body, is supposed to come up with new ideas in September, and those will be forwarded to EU heads of state and government for a final decision the following month.

Russia got some support last week from French President Jacques Chirac, who called the EU visa system for Kaliningrad residents unacceptable. But diplomats in Brussels say there are no signs that France is seriously ready to break ranks with its EU partners over the issue.

Kaliningrad, formerly part of German East Prussia, was seized by the Soviet Union after World War II. Over the past decade, according to one EU official, it has become synonymous with crime, disease, and environmental problems. The European Union fears that if its borders are not tightly regulated, as it enlarges eastward, it will face a wave of illegal immigration and an influx of organized crime from Kaliningrad.