-This will not be an ordinary local border traffic agreement, Polish General Consul to Kaliningrad Marek Golkowsky said at the European Border Dialogues Forum last Thursday. –All of Kaliningrad Oblast will be included together with Polish cities like Gdansk, Olsztyn and Elblag, he added.
Polish Foreign Ministry representative Pawel Cieplak in the same conference confirmed that the European Parliament will vote on the establishment of the zone on the 14 December. If the parliament approves the initiative, the Polish and Russian sides will seal the deal on the 19 December, he informed.
Downtown Kaliningrad with the Königsberg Cathedral (photo: Atle Staalesen)
As BarentsObserver has reported, the visa-deal has over the last couple of years been negotiated by the two countries. While the negotiators now have completed their talks, the issue has the last months been on the table of EU authorities
However, the deal is controversial. While the current Schengen regulations allow for the establishment of local border traffic zones only in a 30 km, and in exceptional cases 50 km, radius from the border, the new Polish-Russian zone stretches over a several hundred kilometer long territory and includes several million people. Still, the Polish-Russian will not set presence for other regions, Cieplak argues. He maintains that an amendment will be made to the Schengen legislation, which put the Kaliningrad region in special position in all of Europe.
Diplomats and experts present at the conference confirm that the Russian-Norwegian agreement on local border traffic, signed by the countries’ foreign ministers in November 2010, served as the sample for the new deal.
The visa-free zone is historical in not only Russian-Polish, but also Russian-EU, relations. Several hundred thousand people in the region might end up obtaining permits on local cross-border traveling. Alone in Kaliningrad Oblast, 650.000 people of a population of about 950.000 have international passports, one of the requirements for getting the permits.
From before, the Polish-Russian border areas experience a strong increase in cross-border traveling and queues on the border checkpoints are mounting. With the new visa-facilitation in the pipeline, the number of border crossers could multiple and lines and waiting times grow significantly. According to Aleksei Ignatiev, leader of the Kaliningrad Regional Economic Development Agency, the establishment of the visa-free zone will not necessarily make it easier for people to cross the border. He fears endless waiting times at the checkpoints unless the border-crossing systems are improved.
The 2nd European Border Dialogues Forum took place in Kaliningrad and Elblag 17-18 November 2011 (photo: Atle Staalesen)
The European Border Dialogues Forum took place in the cities of Kaliningrad and Elblag (Poland) on the 17-18 November. The forum is an annual conference on cross-border cooperation in Europe organized by a network of organizations, among them the Kaliningrad Development Institute, the Institute of Stability and Development and the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.