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Kaliningrad – A bridge between two worlds or a military outpost?

Kant island, Kaliningrad. Photo © by Julia Nikitina
Kant island, Kaliningrad. Photo © by Julia Nikitina

Russian island in the EU

map-kaliningradThe Kaliningrad region is a special territory. Being the smallest oblast (federal subject) of Russia, it is surrounded by EU members Poland and Lithuania. The westernmost point of Russia can be found in the exclave: the town of Baltiysk, also housing the Baltic military fleet. Kaliningrad is closer to Berlin than to Moscow: 1087 kilometres far from Moscow and only 690 kilometres from Berlin.

It was the irony of fate that the Kaliningrad region became an exclave for the second time: between the two world wars, it was part of Germany, separated from the mainland by the Danzig corridor. After World War II, the Soviet Union received the territory as a war trophy, as compensation for the Soviet victims of the fights. Königsberg and its surroundings became part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, but it did not have any significance that time, which republic it is annexed to.

In this respect, the situation is quite similar to that of the Crimea, which was given to Ukraine as a present for the 300th anniversary of the Pereyaslavl treaty between the Cossack Hetmanate with Moscow, but no one ever thought Ukraine would once become independent and Russia would lose the territory this way. However, after Lithuania gained independence from the USSR, the territory became separated from the Soviet Union and then from Russia.

The parallel with Crimea came up recently in the light of the developments of 2014, in an article by the Moscow Times and by the incident when three men raised the German flag on the top of the Federal Security Service local headquarters building in Kaliningrad.


Dealing with the past

After the war, the strategy used by Moscow to deal with the German past was destruction and eradication. The German population, who did not leave the region at the end of the war, either fled to Germany later or died from hunger.  (According to estimations, several thousands of Germans starved to death in the Kaliningrad region.)

The name of the region was soon changed to Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, who was the president of the USSR at that time and, who, by the way, did not have any connection to Kaliningrad. Lots of the old German era buildings were destroyed during the war (the cathedral was ruined by the Royal Air Force bombing), but even those monuments that survived the war were seen an undesirable.

Königsberg Castle, 1895

Königsberg Castle, 1895. Source: Wikipedia

The castle of Königsberg, regarded as the symbol of Prussian militarism and Drang nach Osten, was exploded in spite of the protest of local intellectuals in 1968 to build the House of Soviets in its place. This building is not less symbolic as its predecessor. Inspired by the Brazilian parliament building of Oscar Niemeyer, was never finished and stands idle until the present day, nicknamed by the local population as ‘the buried robot’, ‘new Königsberg Castle’ or simply ‘the Monster’. Lonely Planet calls it one of the ugliest buildings in the world, at least among the works of Soviet architecture.

Together with the transformation of the identity after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was considered to change the name of the city, just as other cities named after Soviet politicians (Leningrad, Sverdlovsk, Ordzhonikidze etc.) were changed.  However, most probably it would have taken too much courage to return the name Königsberg, and more neutral variants such as Korolovets (analogy of the Polish name Królewiec) and Kantgrad were not popular enough either. During a survey, it turned out that a lot of the young people did not associate the name of the city with Mikhail Kalinin, but with the plant called kalina (guelder-rose), featured in the famous song Kalinka.

In 2011, the governor of the Kaliningrad region, Nikolay Tsukanov, called the House of Soviets “the shame of the city” which, according to him, has to be demolished and on the place where once the Royal Castle was standing, the Royal Castle has to stand again.  There are also plans to reconstruct the buildings of the Kant Island, which used to be a densely built-up area.


A concern for both sides

During the Soviet period, the region was a militarized territory, difficult to access even for Soviet citizens.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was still regarded as an outpost of the Russian army and fleet. After having significantly decreased the number of military personnel, the army stationed in the Kaliningrad Oblast now roughly equals the number of the Lithuanian army.

Although the weaponry stationed in the region has also been decreased since the fall of the Soviet Union, nowadays we see a reverse process.

us_missile_def_slide03When the US announced the location of the ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2012, Russia threatened to locate short-range Iskander missiles in the exclave which could destroy infrastructure in neighbouring NATO-countries, as they are capable to hit targets in a 500 km range and can be equipped with nuclear warheads. In March last year, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles were sent to Kaliningrad for a military exercise just before the European Council meeting. Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz interpreted it as an attempt to influence decisions on sanctions against Russia. In May, Russian Armed Forces announced the deployment of Iskander-M complexes in Kaliningrad before 2018. It is a never-ending story with the nuclear weapons in the region: in September last year, Russia threatened to deploy Iskander S-400 missiles in Kaliningrad if the US upgrades German nuclear arsenal. The expert of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies Igor Nikolaychuk openly stated that Kaliningrad is and should be a fortress of Russia.

The militarization is currently increasing: a NATO official said to RFL/RL in the end of June that “thousands of troops, including mechanized and naval infantry brigades, military aircraft, modern long-range air defence units and hundreds of armoured vehicles” are stationed in the territory.

Military activity has intensified in the region, which has raised concerns of the neighbouring Baltic States and Poland, who asked permanent presence from NATO.

Since 2014, the United States has deployed around 600 troops in the Baltic States and Poland on a rotational basis.

Russia considers the stationing of NATO troops at the border area a violation of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on the size of forces the alliance can station in former Warsaw Pact countries, while some in NATO say the agreement is not legally binding and Russia has broken nearly all of its commitments laid down in the document. Russia promised to increase its military presence at the Western territories (meaning Kaliningrad and Belarus) in case NATO would place heavy weapons in its Eastern member countries. The decision could be approved on the next meeting of NATO defence ministers in the beginning of July in Warsaw.

On the other hand, the territory has a vulnerable position as it is dependent on transit across NATO-member Lithuania.

In the end of 2015, in the light of the power cut in Crimea, Russia raised concerns in connection with the planned switch of the Baltic states from the Soviet era electricity system (BRELL) to the European power grid as it could threaten the energy security of the Kaliningrad region by disrupting the functioning of the grid. (As Andrey Vypolzov writes, ‘at present, up to 98 percent of Kaliningrad’s electricity needs are provided by the Kaliningrad thermal power plant, which is powered by natural gas’. That gas comes via a pipeline which goes from Belarus through Lithuania.)

The region is unable to sustain itself, food import is needed from neighbouring EU countries and Russia, although since the introduction of the sanctions food products brought from alternative countries managed to cover the needs of the population.

Apart from that, in case of a military conflict between Russia and the NATO, the exclave would likely be in the first line.

On 11 June last year, hackers posted information on the website of the Joint Staff of the Lithuanian Armed Forces about the military exercise of the Baltic States and Poland called Saber Strike (1-19 June) being a preparation for the annexation of the Kaliningrad region. It was presumably an action of Russia to discredit Lithuania and NATO.

Russia sees Kaliningrad as a matter of concern – because the danger of separation – and in the same time as a trump card, as Moscow knows that Brussels considers the region as a threat.

It is seen by the EU as an unsafe area, affected by human trafficking, weapon trade and drug smuggling. With the construction of the Neman nuclear power plant on the border of the region with Lithuania (which, together with the nuclear plant in Astravyets, Belarus, was possibly devised to thwart the construction of the new Lithuanian nuclear plant), the fear from a nuclear catastrophe came into the picture.

Russians living in the region feel isolated from the rest of Russia: because of the price of air tickets to Russia and EU transit visas, a lot of them visit Russia much less often than neighbouring EU countries.

To counteract separatist tendencies, Russia tries to emphasize the unity of the Kaliningrad region and Russia instead of the special status of the territory. Russian fears of secession have intensified since 2013-2014 events in Ukraine: back in 2014, the leaders of the oblast warned of the alleged attempts of Western special services to organize a ‘Maidan’ in the region.


Troubled economy and a magnet for migrants

After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was an idea to make the Kaliningrad region a bridge between the East and the West or the `window of Russia to the East`.

The special economic zone called Yantar (Amber) was created in 1996.

The inscription on the panel: Kaliningrad Oblast - The special economic zone

The inscription on the panel: Kaliningrad Oblast – The special economic zone

In contrast to the majority of Russia`s special economic zones, Yantar, providing duty free import and low taxes for enterprises was moderately successful in the mid-90s, but due to administrative inefficiency, instead of export hub, it became an import zone for German and Polish goods. (Germany is the biggest investor). It will be closed in 2016 because of Russia’s WTO membership and its incompatibility with WTO rules.

Today businesses enjoying the privileges of the special economic zone account for approximately 70% of the region’s industrial output. According to the estimations, after the termination of the special economic zone in April 2016, the gross regional product would drop by 16-19%, approximately 500 enterprises will shut down, 45-50 thousand people will lose their jobs, consumer market will shrink and trade turnover and industry input will decrease.

Within the North-Western Federal District of Russia, the Kaliningrad Oblast shows similar socioeconomic development level like other regions of the district and emerges as an attractive place for migrants: 60-70% of them are external migrants, coming from Central Asia and the Caucasus, most of them arriving within the state program for the resettlement of compatriots.

In spite of its ice-free ports and proximity to the EU, the Kaliningrad region is now less developed than the Russian average (relatively high unemployment, lower salaries). Customs and transport costs raise consumption prices, which, combined with lower than average Russian salaries, makes living standard lower.


The ‘curd revolution’

Kaliningraders got used to Lithuanian dairy products already in Soviet times

Kaliningraders got used to Lithuanian dairy products already in Soviet times

In October 2013, the Russian government placed a ban on the import of dairy products from Lithuania.

The restriction was introduced because – according to Russian authorities – the quality of the products concerned did not meet Russian Federation standards.

While the restriction did not apply to the whole country, but for specific companies, it practically covered the most important Lithuanian firms that sell their dairy products in Russia.

However, this explanation cannot be taken seriously, as the restriction entered into force just before the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2014 and Russia has used similar measures to put pressure on countries which were considered to belong to the Russian sphere of influence: ban on Georgian wine and mineral water after the war with Georgia; or on Moldovan wine also before the Vilnius summit.

This measure hit Kaliningrad especially severely, as local producers could satisfy only 56% of the dairy product need back then. The remaining part of the market was covered by products, imported from Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and other parts of Russia. (Kaliningrad was even considered to be exempted from the food embargo in 2014 because its dependence on EU import, but this idea was later abandoned.)

Locals in Kaliningrad disliked the restriction and were protesting on Facebook by changing their profile pictures to photos of Lithuanian cheeses, yogurts and creams. A meeting was also organized on this issue. This was the so-called ‘curd revolution’.

Kaliningraders got used to Lithuanian dairy products already in Soviet times. Although these usually cost more, customers in Kaliningrad appreciate the premium quality of Lithuanian curd, cheese, yogurts etc. But it is not only about curd and not only about money.

Residents of the Kaliningrad region again had the feeling that they have to suffer because of the political manoeuvres of the leaders of the Russian Federation. Their interests were not taken into consideration. They are experiencing an inconvenient situation, locked in the exclave, not being able to comfortably travel to the rest of Russia and to the EU. They have to pay high prices for goods, imported from the EU – because of the taxes, and for goods, brought in from Russia – because of the shipping costs.


Local consciousness

Kant island, Kaliningrad. Photo © by Julia Nikitina

Kant island, Kaliningrad. Photo © by Julia Nikitina

The geographical position and the German past of the region influences the identity of Kaliningrad, which is to some extent different from other Russian regions.

Perhaps being able to experience Europe (in spite of all the restrictions they face) made them think differently about their identity, their relationship to Europe and Russia.

The Prussian heritage (e. g. the tomb of Immanuel Kant on the Island of Kant, as it was renamed by the Russian municipality a couple of years ago; the neogothic fortresses) has formed the consciousness of some inhabitants of Kaliningrad, where it is now not uncommon at all to call a bus company or a sports club ‘König’. When the veriest Russians wave the flags of East Prussia and Königsberg, it is not difficult to see, that they must be either romantics who feel nostalgia for the past or be somewhat disappointed with Russia. The Baltic Republican Party, which demands autonomy for the Kaliningrad Oblast, could no longer exist as a political party but continues to work as a civil movement.

The influence of the German past to the identity today’s Kaliningraders was acknowledged in the speech of patriarch Kirill not long ago who warned that they should resist the appeal of these foreign civilizational values and called for creating a ‘Russian-architectural-cultural landscape’. The same worries were articulated by the president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, Leonid Ivashov, warning that there is a huge information war going on in Kaliningrad, with ‘Germany especially coveting the region’.

If the region feels ignorance from Moscow, it is likely that pro-European sentiments will invigorate. Being a remnant of a world order that ceased to exist a long time ago, this exclave is an inclusion in modern Europe (like an insect in a piece of amber, one of the most important exports of the Kaliningrad region), its existence is somehow absurd, not logical and not practical for any of the sides concerned. It is not sure that the future of Kaliningrad is tied to Russia for all times.

At the elections to the local council of one of the districts of the Kaliningrad Oblast in May last year, the ruling United Russia party failed to gain any mandates.

Some interpret that it may indicate the dissatisfaction of the locals towards the ruling elite of the country, but according to local sources, the reason is a conflict between the governor and the local authorities and tactical failures of United Russia in choosing candidates, unknown to the local population. An important component was the outrage of locals over the refusal of the authorities to register 78 candidates out of 139. However, it is surely not a good signal for United Russia in the Kaliningrad region and – maybe – in whole Russia.

Kalinigraders seem not to be ready to accept the complete lack of regard of the Kremlin. On the other hand, it is difficult to tell at the moment whether the anti-Westernization and propaganda efforts will affect local identity.


Beatrix Tolgyesi
Central-east-european and post-soviet analyst, translator, specialist of the Baltic countries

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