Russia-EU: Who will open this window on Europe?

Kaliningrad, Russia, March 2011
Kaliningrad, Russia, March 2011
10 May 2011 – Polityka (Warsaw)

Residents of a region that considers itself to be a “window on Europe,” the population of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which is located between Poland and Lithuania, want Moscow to establish closer links with the EU. In particular, they are hoping for an end to a requirement for visas for European travel: an “iron curtain” that separates them from Western modernity.

Even before he knew what he was going to call its capital — Królewiec, Karaliaučius, Königsberg or Kaliningrad — Stalin ordered the annexation of what was then a province of East Prussia and its inclusion in the Soviet Union — an initiative that ultimately resulted in the creation of the exclave (an area ruled by another territory that is not geographically contiguous) of Kaliningrad Oblast, which is separated from Russia by Lithuania and Belarus.

Until 1991, Kaliningrad Oblast, which had a garrison of 200,000 troops, functioned as a kind of unsinkable aircraft carrier. Today, Kaliningrad’s population, which stands at close to a million, would like their province to be a "window on Europe," or more precisely on the European Union.

Notwithstanding its isolation from the rest of the country, the demonstrations that took place there in early 2010 placed Kaliningrad at the epicentre of a political earthquake in Russia. Approximately 20,000 protesters took to the streets to demand the right to elect their governor from a list of local candidates who understand their real needs, and an end to the practice of parachuting in civil servants from Moscow.

The protesters wanted to know why the "window on Europe," which is rich in oil and amber and potentially an attractive tourist destination, has remained one of Russia’s poorest provinces; and why, when viewed from abroad, Kaliningrad is associated with nuclear weapons, AIDS and crime.

The possibility of visa free travel to the EU

Eventually the Kremlin responded by appointing a Nikolay Tsukanov, a native of Kaliningrad and a member of the ruling United Russia party, to be the province’s new governor. However, his nomination failed to put an end to public debate on the disastrous effects of centralisation and top-down control of Russia’s regions.

Over the last 20 years, the Kremlin has sought to transform the exclave into a special economic zone, but has had relatively little success in attracting foreign investment. Lack of infrastructure and unreliable power supplies also resulted in the failure of a second project to make the province one of the four areas of the country where gambling is legal.

At the same time, Moscow has had no qualms about instrumentalising the specific geographic and geopolitical status of Kaliningrad. In negotiations with Brussels on the possibility of visa free travel to the EU, it insisted that any measure that would be applicable to the population of the exclave would have to apply for all of its provinces.

Finally, the tactical nuclear weapons that are thought to be deployed in Kaliningrad – ‘thought to be’ because the Kremlin has refused to confirm or deny this information — continue to have an impact on relations between Russia and NATO.

A desire to rebel could emerge in the local population

According to Kaliningrader and political scientist Andrei Sukhanov, 90% of people living in Kaliningrad feel more Russian than the inhabitants of other regions of the country. Far from wanting to set aside their national identity, they simply want their little homeland to become a focus for cooperation between Russia and the European Union.

However, this is a view not shared by Sergei Pasko, founder of the Baltic Republican Party, which aims to promote the autonomy of the exclave. Pasko has even drafted a constitution for the Baltic Republic of Kaliningrad, a province that he believes should be included in NATO and the European Union, while still remaining part of Russia.

There is no doubt that a desire to rebel could emerge in the local population, especially among members of the younger generation, who are well aware of the better quality of life enjoyed by their Polish and Lithuanian neighbours.

"The right to a life that is no worse than the one we would have in the EU" is currently a slogan in vogue in Kaliningrad. But how can such a right be granted without closer links with the EU?

A delegation from Kaliningrad recently organised a gathering in front of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels to demand an end to the "iron curtain" visa requirement — a barrier that young Russians find to be as oppressive as the communist party was for their parents.

Poland and Russia have come up with a deal

The EU’s interest in Kaliningrad and its willingness to explore the possibility of enhanced cooperation with Russia is a positive development. Moscow is well aware that it will be unable to modernise without Europe, and Kaliningrad offers an ideal test bed for relations with the EU.

The first step will have to be to convince the countries of the European Union to abolish the visa requirement for cross-border travel. As it stands, the EU rules allow freedom for cross border trips that do not penetrate more than 30 kilometres into EU territory. However, no cities are located in this area when it is defined with regard to Kaliningrad.

Poland and Russia have come up with a deal for an enlarged border zone (50km on both sides of the border), which would allow access to the entire territory of the Russian exclave, and put the city of Gdańsk [which is located 170km from Kaliningrad] within reach of travelers from the province.

The consent of other members of the Schengen Area will have to be obtained for the implementation of this project, which will imply changes to existing EU legislation.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.