Kaliningrad     Print

A Tug-of-War Between Brussels and Moscow

Kaliningrad is a Russian oblast (administrative district) located between Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea, cut off from the rest of Russia. The current problem between Russia and the European Union is over the border regime that Poland and Lithuania will apply to Kaliningrad citizens after the two countries join the European Union, probably in 2004. At present, the residents of Kaliningrad do not need visas to travel to or through the territory of their two European neighbors.

EU policy, however, will require them to apply for visas once Poland and Lithuania become EU members. The requirement is part of the Schengen Agreement, which provides that open borders inside the European Union are to be offset by stronger controls at the Union's common external frontier.

Russia takes great exception to this requirement and has demanded that a special case be made for citizens of Kaliningrad who may need to travel through Lithuania to reach Russia proper. Although difficult negotiations are still under way, there is hope that a solution to the Kaliningrad issue will promote a substantial growth in EU-Russian relations.

Kaliningrad was originally a territory of East Prussia, which was divided in two after World War II. The Northern section was annexed by the Soviet Union, and its main city, Koenigsberg, renamed Kaliningrad. The southern section became part of Poland.

When the Central European countries won their freedom at the end of the Cold War, Kaliningrad remained part of Russia, although disconnected from the rest of the country. With its strategic position on the Baltic Sea, Moscow hoped to transform the district into a "Russian Hong Kong" by making it a free trade zone. In order to promote trade with its European neighbors, Kaliningrad has applied loose border inspection and controls.

Although Kaliningrad has much agricultural and industrial promise as a free trade zone, there is little hope of its emulating Hong Kong. The World Bank's Transition Newsletter says that foreign investment, especially from EU entrepreneurs, has been all but discouraged by what the Europeans see as the "seemingly arbitrary nature of Russian law." And while Kaliningrad has attracted more foreign direct investment than the rest of Russia, it lags far behind its Baltic neighbors.

The economy is one of many tribulations plaguing the Kaliningrad district. "Residents of Kaliningrad are 65 times poorer than EU citizens, and also considerably poorer than people living elsewhere in Russia. Almost one-third of the population lives below the subsistence level," according to the World Bank newsletter. Economic isolation and one of the highest AIDS and tuberculosis rates in Russia aggravate poverty in the region.

The tiny enclave also suffers heavily from air and water pollution, and the disposal of nuclear waste is a massive burden. "In view of the past military presence in Kaliningradƒthere are also problems arising from stockpiles of chemical weapons left over from the Second World War," according to the European Commission.

Another important consideration for EU-Russian relations is that Kaliningrad continues to be a key military outpost for the Russian Baltic Fleet. That is also relevant for NATO, which already includes Poland and is likely to admit Lithuania later this year. When Poland and Lithuania become EU members, Kaliningrad's problems will almost automatically become those of the European Union, "given the obvious cross-border implications of crime, pollution, and health issues," the World Bank publication says.

Such problems can only heighten the importance of the regime adopted at the future EU-Kaliningrad border. As a result, Brussels and Moscow are being forced to negotiate and to reshape their policies toward one another. The hope is to resolve the issue by the European Union's Copenhagen summit meeting in December, which is due to finalize the list of new member states. According to the World Bank newsletter, the following issues must be tackled:

The visas are the toughest sticking point in the EU negotiations with Russia. European policymakers are adamant that, after enlargement, all foreigners will be required to obtain visas in order to enter and leave EU territory. In light of the problems the region has with organized crime, disease and poverty, Brussels views visas as a necessary security measure.

Moscow, however, is demanding a right of free transit, without visas, through Lithuania to the rest of Russia. It does not want its citizens to be burdened with long and crowded lines in consular offices, and argues that their human rights will suffer if it is made more difficult for them to travel between parts of their own country.

Brussels has proposed flexibility on the price of visas and/or the possibility of issuing multiple visas to frequent travelers. It has accepted the possibility of visa-free travel across Lithuania via special high-speed, sealed trains. It is also willing to help expand consular services in Kaliningrad, and in its future EU neighbors. Although the two sides have been negotiating for quite some time, there is no sign yet that a final decision is near.

A further complication is that the more concessions the European Union offers to Moscow, the more it is likely to antagonize Lithuania, which has accused EU negotiators of trading away Lithuania's sovereignty even before the country has joined the European Union and eroding support for EU membership.

Ultimately, the Russian government will have to decide whether it wants a working relationship with the European Union. U.S. and EU officials see Kaliningrad as complicating EU-Russian relations, but do not believe that it will obstruct the European Union's enlargement. Regional prosperity is good for Russia, too.

At present, however, Russia is subject to internal as well as external pressures. While Moscow is being urged by the European Union to reach a settlement, it is also under pressure from its own citizens. For many years the politics of Kaliningrad were not of great public interest. Times, however, are changing, as Russian voters are now more concerned than ever with the integrity of Russia in the eyes of the world, according to Russian analysts. Russia's true concern with the Kaliningrad situation lies not with the residents of its distant enclave, but in demonstrating its ability to negotiate firmly as a major world player; it wants to see the European Union take its views into account.

The truth is that links between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia have historically been far weaker than Moscow is currently asserting. While nearly 34 percent of Kaliningrad's residents have traveled to Europe, a startling 70 percent of them have never been to Russia proper, according to EU and Russian statistics. For the most part, the enclave subsists by itself, with little more than institutional and financial links to the mainland. These factors seem to support the notion that while Kaliningrad depends on financial support from Moscow, its leaders want less interference in the district's internal problems from the Russian federal government.

Moscow realizes the economic opportunities of working with the European Union. Analysts say that the European Union is by far Russia's biggest trading partner, and President Vladimir Putin is keenly aware that rapprochement with the Union is his country's best hope for economic development. It is also quite evident that with the European Union expanding closer to the Russian border, these economic ties can only grow stronger.

Russia understands that it "stands to benefit substantially from enlargement and regions such as Kaliningrad are well placed to take advantage of the new opportunities, including lower tariffs, etc., which will be created," the European Commission says.

Kaliningrad is an important test case - it brings up many issues that will have to be resolved with Russia in a wider context. None of them, however, should create insurmountable obstacles to improved political or economic relations between Brussels and Moscow. The beginnings of change can already be witnessed in Moscow. The Russian daily Izvestia has reported that, by 2004 all Kaliningrad residents will be provided with external passports, a development that might help with a solution.