Upon the announcement that Lithuanians travelling to Kaliningrad will be able to obtain a free Russian visa, international relations experts warn that this offer hides numerous risks.
Russia has officially informed Lithuania that starting July 1, EU citizens, including those of Lithuania, travelling to Kaliningrad will be able to obtain a free electronic visa. The aim of this decision is apparently to increase the number of tourists in Kaliningrad, improving the region’s economic metric, Laura Adomavičienė wrote in tv3.lt.
Vilnius Institute of Policy Analysis chief analyst Marius Laurinavičius says that this move by Russia as a means to make EU member states respond in kind, easing access for Russian citizens into the Schengen Area.
“This is the same old Russian policy. The idea that there will be a common area from Lisbon to Vladivostok, where we will all cooperate. This is one of the tiny initiatives for the massive global idea. Of course, they hope that this way, they will force or encourage other states to open up visa-free or simplified regimes for themselves,” M. Laurinavičius said.
Eastern Europe Studies Centre director Linas Kojala concurs on the question of the free Russian visa. In his opinion, one of the goals declared by Russia itself is to revive the economic movement in the region, which is below Russia’s average GDP level, truly does exist. However, at the same time, it is a type of pressure for other countries to take to the negotiation table and consider possibilities to improve Russian citizens’ movement within the EU.
Russia is now waiting for the Brussels move
Both experts unanimously agree that Russia has little leverage to pressure either Lithuania or other EU states at the moment. Nevertheless, a small gap for agreement remains.
“The conditions are strongly linked to the overall political processes between the EU and Russia, which are currently best described by the word “sanctions.” They have been applied due to the Crimean annexation and the continuing aggression in Donbas. So long as the situation remains fundamentally unchanged, talking about a significant breakthrough, with a visa-free regime being a massive step forward compared to the current situation, would be especially difficult. Even prior to Ukraine, this question was hard to resolve and no major steps were made in regard to it,” L. Kojala said.
“To some extent, Lithuania can unilaterally decide on visa simplification [for Russian citizens] despite being a member of the EU. The example of Kaliningrad and Poland, where they had a border zone, it shows that a similar agreement is possible. A complete visa-free regime, probably not, but for a certain area, something like a 20-50km radius, such agreements are possible, as shown by the Polish example,” M. Laurinavičius reminded.
Nevertheless, after the 2014 Crimean annexation, Poland halted the simplified visa regime with Russia’s Kaliningrad region due to security concerns. At the same time, the EU also halted negotiations on this matter with Russia.
Russia recruiting common citizens
The Vilnius Institute of Policy Analysis expert highlighted that there is another threat in regards to a free Russian visa – the more Lithuanian citizens travel to Kaliningrad, the more opportunities Russian intelligence will have to recruit agents. The greatest threat arises for businessmen travelling to Kaliningrad.
“Something I keep repeating – Russia is a mafia state. It is no news that Russia takes up the most varied means to recruit, propose business deals and thus expands its influence network from recruiting to all other measures and they do it all the time. Businesses are overall the main target. Thus, it is completely natural that they want to attract as many people as possible, who one way or another are linked to businesses, especially if the business is at least partially in some grey zone if some sort of contraband begins or such. These people are particularly targeted by Russia,” M. Laurinavičius stated.
The State Security Department (VSD) has reported that particularly frequently, Russian intelligence services target businessmen, who travel to Russia frequently, as well as other citizens, who could be vulnerable to blackmail. Regular citizens without any links to important institutions and not working with classified information are also targeted.
Warnings from the State Security Department
In the 2019 national security threat evaluation states that “Russian and Belarussian intelligence services have developed intelligence against foreign citizens on their own territory. The trend is constantly observed that Russian and Belarussian intelligence are particularly interested in all Lithuanian citizens (particularly politicians, law enforcement officers, servicemen, businessmen, and journalists), who have intelligence capacities, who have relatives in Russia and Belarus or visit the countries due to other reasons. Such individuals, considering their intelligence capacities, favourability, weaknesses and dependence on Russia or Belarus, become targets of recruiting.”
“Any part of a trip to this country is a risk. Starting from how even the VSD has warned a number of times to not take along electronics, cell phones that are used by individuals in Lithuania. They advise bringing a disposable piece. The same with computers. You have to understand that you are going to a country, which is in essence at undeclared war against us as a state. It is a mafia state, it exploits the most varied opportunities, the most brutal ways in order to achieve its goals and recruit. Those, who nevertheless dare go for whatever reason, to do some sort of business there, they should consider the risk themselves. If they believe that those threats are not relevant to them, then at the very least they shouldn’t seek state support afterwards,” M. Laurinavičius said, commenting a free Russian visa.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that it currently has no specific recommendations for those travelling to Kaliningrad Oblast. Nevertheless, it is advised to adhere to usual security precautions: avoid unsafe looking locales and gatherings, safeguard personal documents and possessions and such. Same as for all those travelling, it is advised to download the app Keliauk Saugiai [Travel Safely] prior to departing and register the trip on the URM website so that if need be, consular officials could contact the citizen.
How does it work?
The tv3.lt news portal reminds that from July 1 onward, the free Russian visa will be issued to those travelling to Kaliningrad Oblast for business, tourism, humanitarian or cultural purposes. Lithuanians must fill out an electronic form in the Russian Foreign Ministry website and provide a picture of themselves no later than four calendar days prior to the planned trip.
Those travelling to the area will have to bring a passport that is valid for over half a year, also requiring health insurance. This visa is valid for 30 days and will permit a stay in Kaliningrad for no more than eight days from entry. The visa is single use only.