Russia solved one longstanding international relations crisis Monday, when President Vladimir Putin struck a deal with the European Union regarding the status of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, but as the Financial Times observed, “the price was the shelving of any tough debate on Chechnya.”
Around 1.5 million Russians live in Kaliningrad, which will be completely surrounded by European Union nations when Lithuania and Poland join in 2004 (for more on the history of Kaliningrad, see this “Foreigners” column from January, 2001). The European Union had insisted that visas would be required for Russians to cross EU territory when traveling from Kaliningrad to the Russian mainland, “citing possible illegal immigration, crime, health and drug problems,” according to Britain’s Guardian. Putin was adamant that Russians should be able to travel from one piece of national territory to another unmolested. In the end, a symbolic compromise was reached under which Lithuania will issue “facilitated travel documents”—visas by another name—to allow passage between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia. Currently, according to the Moscow Times, “Russians make 960,000 trips by train and 620,000 by car between Kaliningrad and the rest of the country every year.”
Despite the relief that years of wrangling over Kaliningrad had come to an end, most coverage of the Brussels summit focused on Putin’s remarks about Chechnya. The Moscow Times reported that when questioned by a French journalist, the Russian president launched into an impassioned disquisition about radical Muslims’ plan to use terrorism to create a “global caliphate.” Putin, who was visibly angry at reporters’ tough questions on Chechnya, concluded with what the MT described as “a tasteless joke”: “If you want to go all the way and become a Muslim radical and are ready to get circumcised, I invite you to Moscow. We are a multi-confessional country, we have experts in this field, too. I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way that nothing grows back.” According to the paper, the crude remarks were edited out of footage shown on Russian state television.
France’s Le Figaro decried European governments’ timidity for failing to challenge Russia’s human rights abuses in Chechnya. The editorial said terrorism “legitimates all the actions of those who try to crush it, even by the most heinous means. This is, if one dare say it, the happy fate that befalls Vladimir Putin.” It continued, “The Moscow theater tragedy enables him to register the war in Chechnya as part of the international war on terrorism, since his country, like the United States, is a victim of the Islamist nightmare.” By staying quiet about Russia’s behavior in Chechnya, the European Union is falling for the illusion that “unresolved questions disappear,” the paper declared.