Visa requirements confound Russians

Nearly sixty Russians were thrown off transit trains on Tuesday. Future EU member Lithuania had switched to a new visa regime for non-EU citizens, affecting those travelling between mainland Russia and the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

    Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave, is
    now completely surrounded by EU

    Algimantas Songaila, the head of Lithuania's border guard service, said 57 people were kicked off at the border on the first four trains going to the Russian enclave, whose main city of Kaliningrad is 1,290 km west of Moscow.
    "Most of them did not have documents for travel because Russia did not act according to the rules set by the agreement," said Songaila.
    Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Antanas Valionis, told journalists in Vienna that although there had been some technical problems, the main trouble was due a “lack of information in Russia".
    EU visa changes

    Lithuanian visa requirements for Russian citizens travelling between the mainland and Kaliningrad came into force as part of the Baltic state's preparations to join the European Union next May.
    The new requirements - which have been a bone of contention with Moscow - also apply to many other former Soviet countries, including Ukraine and Belarus, whose citizens need visas for the first time to enter Lithuania.
    Raimundas Lopata, the head of the Vilnius Institute for International Relations and Political Sciences, said the system had gone well, but proved that Lithuania had a challenge ahead to fit in with the EU's border-free Schengen agreement as planned in 2008.
    "The agreement on new visa rules was a serious test but also a diplomatic achievement for Lithuania," said Lopata. "We managed to protect our sovereignty and were equal partners in negotiations with the EU and Russia and this should be seen as an achievement."
    But he added: "The first day shows that Russia is not completely ready for the new rules and if the same situation persists we could have serious problems in the future."
    Kaliningrad surrounded
    Although the new visa system applies to many ex-Soviet countries the impact was expected to be felt most in Kaliningrad, which will be surrounded by EU countries when Poland and Lithuania join the bloc next year and from which more than 1,000 people transit through Lithuania to mainland Russia each day.
    However Poland, the biggest of the 10 countries on course to join the EU in May, plans not to introduce visas until October.
    The new travel arrangements prompted tough talks with Moscow, which wanted to ensure citizens in Kaliningrad were not further isolated from the rest of the country.
    Under a hard-won deal struck between the EU and Russia last November, Kaliningraders will be issued a so-called facilitated transit document - effectively a low-cost, easily obtained multiple entry-visa.
    Lithuanian and Russian parliamentarians, along with special presidential envoys from the two countries and the EU and Italian ambassadors to Russia were set to travel from Kaliningrad to Minsk to see how the new rules work in practice.


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