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MUCH ADO ABOUT A TINY PIECE OF LAND

gwynne dyer

It is half the size of Belgium, but the countries get bigger as one goes east across Europe so it looks very small on the map. Legally, it’s just another region of Russia, but several hundred kilometres of foreign territory lie between it and the rest of Russia. It has no economic or strategic importance, and yet, as the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said after the last Russia-European Union summit in May, “Our overall relations with the EU depend on how this issue of vital importance to Russia is solved.”

The territory is Kaliningrad, on the eastern shores of the Baltic, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. Koenigsburg, as its main city used to be known, was a medieval jewel founded by the Teutonic knights in 1255, but by the time the Royal Air Force and the Red Army finished with the city in 1944-45, there was little left of value or of beauty. At the end of World War II, as part of the carve-up of German territories in the east agreed to by the Allied leaders at Potsdam, it was handed over to V.I. Stalin, who promptly renamed it Kaliningrad after one of his cronies.

The problem is that when Moscow annexed the territory in 1945, it did not attach it to Lithuania, the only Soviet republic that actually bordered it. Instead, it made Kaliningrad part of Russia proper, far to the east. Kremlin saw it as a symbolic reward for Russian sacrifices in the war.

Visa power

This made little practical difference so long as the Soviet Union remained intact and one could move freely between the member republics. It did not matter all that much even after 1991, when all the non-Russian republics got their independence. Russians travelling between Kaliningrad and the rest of the country now had to cross foreign territory, but nobody put obstacles in their way. However, now that Poland and Lithuania, the only two countries with land borders with Kaliningrad, are both joining the EU, it matters a lot, for the EU is a bit obsessive about its borders.

There is a reason for that. The Schengen agreement allows free travel between most EU member states without any formalities, but the corollary is that the EU’s external borders with the rest of the world must be guarded with great care. So if Poland and Lithuania want to become EU members in 2004, they have to control all these Russians moving between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia. In fact, Brussels is demanding that Russians get a visa everytime they cross the EU territory that will soon separate Kaliningrad from the rest of Russia.

Rites of passage

The Russians, understandably, are furious at this change in the rules, and have begun to talk about a “blue curtain” descending across Europe (the EU flag is blue). Nevertheless, Putin’s government is trying to find a way out of the confrontation, since it hopes one day to join the EU itself. So last week it suggested that special sealed trains and buses should run between Kaliningrad and Russia proper. The passengers would undergo stringent security checks, but would not require visas.

Unfortunately, Brussels did not budge. The only concession the EU seems willing to offer is a verbal fudge whereby the visas would be called “passes”, but they would still be issued by an EU bureaucrat. What the EU really needs is to prevent leakage into its own territory from the traffic between Kaliningrad and Russia. The formality of visas is only a means to that end.

The Russian proposal for sealed trains and buses travelling along designated routes is almost a mirror image of the three corridors through communist East Germany that connected West Berlin with West Germany during the Cold War, and it would give the EU the security it needs without humiliating the Russians. If the ponderous bureaucracy in Brussels cannot bend that far, it will play into the hands of the still-powerful forces in Russia that oppose Putin’s westward course, and undermine the long-term prospect of a genuinely united Europe. That would be stupid.

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