MOSCOW - Russian and European Union officials stuck to their positions Wednesday in the dispute over Russia's Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad, an increasingly sore spot in their relations as the EU expands into eastern Europe.
The EU will be flexible in talks with Moscow on the thorny issue, but stands firm on its demand that residents of the region obtain visas to travel by land to the rest of Russia when Poland and Lithuania join the EU, the EU executive commission's top representative in Moscow said.
The governor of the Kaliningrad region, Vladimir Yegorov, said a visa requirement would violate human rights and that Russia wouldn't back down.
Citing support from French President Jacques Chirac for Russia's position, Yegorov said he was confident the EU will soften its stance.
"We expect a change," he told a news conference Wednesday.
But the head of the European Commission's delegation in Russia, Richard Wright, said the EU requires visas for Russians entering its member countries and there will be no exception on Lithuania and Poland when they are granted EU membership as expected in 2004.
"The ground rules with Russia are clear, and they will remain for the time being," Wright said. He said the EU might eventually drop visa requirements for Russians, but stressed no such proposal is now under consideration.
The EU requires visas for citizens of some 120 to 130 countries, Wright said, citing concerns including crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration.
Yegorov called for transport corridors allowing Russians to travel through Lithuania without full border controls. "The Russian position is aimed to protect the sovereignty of Russia, to protect rights and to protect the territorial integrity of Russia," he said.
He said he hoped EU officials would listen to Chirac, who said after talks with President Vladimir Putin last week that it would be "unacceptable" to require Russians to get visas "to go from one part of Russia to the other."
Wright and Lars Vissing - ambassador to Russia from Denmark, which now holds the EU's rotating presidency - would not comment directly on Chirac's statement during a news conference at the European Commission's Moscow office. Both stressed that the EU will be flexible in its talks with Russia.
EU enlargement "must not create new lines of division in Europe," Vissing said.
The Kaliningrad issue is emotional in Russia, where the territory is a symbol of the hard-won victory in World War II - a matter of fierce pride for the nation. Formerly called Koenigsberg, it was seized from defeated Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union.
One journalist at the news conference suggested the EU's plans to admit Poland and Lithuania amounted to German revenge, and stood up and threw anti-EU pamphlets in Wright's face, and left the room. Two young men who said they were from a nationalist newspaper then stood up and chanted "The EU is worse than the SS" and "Hands off Kaliningrad."
EU and Russian officials also raised the Kaliningrad dispute at talks Wednesday at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Razov said the talks were "rather tense" and that both sides stuck to their positions, ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Wright said he hopes the Kaliningrad dispute will be resolved before a Russia-EU summit in November.