BRUSSELS: The European Union is expected to agree this week to visa-free travel between the Russian territory of Kaliningrad and its EU neighbors, and also to take steps toward offering this to the rest of Russia, diplomats said.
Kaliningrad is a small Baltic Russian territory separated from the main body of Russia by EU members Poland and Lithuania. It formed part of the former German province of East Prussia and was annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II.
The visa deals are being prepared in time for Thursday’s EU-Russia summit in Brussels, Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, told Reuters in an interview. EU officials too said they expected the agreements, which come against a background of upheaval in Russia.
“That green light seems to be forthcoming at a very late hour before the summit,” Chizhov said of the Kaliningrad pact. “Together with Poland, we appealed to the European Commission to extend that zone to be able to cover the whole of the Kaliningrad region, which is about 100 km wide.”
Kaliningrad already has a special arrangement that allows some Kaliningrad residents living within 30 kilometers of the border to travel into these EU countries without visas. Under the new accord, this would apply to all Kaliningrad residents.
The EU and Russia will Thursday likely also announce “common steps” towards wider visa-free travel, which will include secure documentation and enhanced immigration control.
“It’s expected that the summit will approve and launch the implementation of the common steps,” said one EU official. “It’s basically a road map on things that need to happen” for the EU to agree visa-free travel with Russia.
The summit comes as Russian leader Vladimir Putin faces criticism and opposition unprecedented since he took power in 1999. His United Russia party lost ground in parliamentary elections on Dec. 4 and there are widespread accusations that even that result was enhanced by vote-rigging.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow Saturday to demand the departure of Putin, who is currently prime minister but is hoping to become president again in March.
Russia is scheduled to be admitted to the World Trade Organization the day after the EU-Russia summit, a development expected to boost trade between Russia and the EU.
“If the economy is the basis on which the superstructure of politics is built and if trade is an indicator, I can tell you that volume of trade between Russia and the European Union is about 16 times the volume of trade between Russia and the United States,” Chizhov said. “In energy, the EU and Russia are mutually dependent.”
Visa-free travel would be welcomed by Russians who want access to the EU for everything from tourism to business.
“Visas are the key issue on the Russian agenda,” said Ben Judah, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They have been pushing very hard.”
Until recently, progress was held up by member states’ different hopes and concerns, analysts say. Mediterranean nations would likely benefit from increased tourism. But Russia’s neighbors in northern and eastern Europe worry about mass immigration and an increase in visits by Russian criminals.
The common steps will focus on items such as document security – including electronic passports – and prevention of illegal immigration. These are similar steps to those agreed in the past year with EU neighbors Ukraine and Moldova. But the steps would not automatically lead to a visa-free regime: Implementation of each step would be followed by a review.
Chizhov said an eventual deal on visa-free travel would boost tourism to the struggling economies of southern Europe, whose heavy public debts were the trigger for the eurozone financial crisis.
Around six times the number of Russians visit Turkey each year as visit Greece, he said, “primarily” because Turkey issues Russians with visas when they arrive at its borders. Russians are put off from traveling to Europe’s Schengen Area – of countries that have abolished border controls with each other – by the need to apply for visas at EU consulates, Chizhov said.
“This issue should not be regarded as a Christmas gift from the generous European Union to the poor Russians,” Chizhov said. “The interest at the level of public opinion and business circles is quite obvious. It’s mutual.”
On Kaliningrad, the European Commission and the European Parliament have come out in favor of an amendment to EU law under which the whole region and certain Polish administrative districts will be treated officially as a single “border zone.” That status will ease cross-border travel by people living within the zone. The European Council, which represents member state governments, is expected to approve the plan early this week, an EU diplomat said.
Russia and Poland have also asked for such a travel arrangement to include the right to travel around 100 kilometers into Poland. “It wouldn’t be much of an interest to Russians residing in Kaliningrad to be able to go in just a 50 km zone to see a couple of Polish villages,” Chizhov said.