European Affairs

After the Soviet Union took over Kaliningrad, most of the Germans living there left voluntarily or were driven out, and it became a military bastion. The Baltic Sea Fleet was stationed there, as well as army and other units, to defend Russia from an attack from the West, or, conversely, to act as a launching point for an attack on the NATO countries.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kaliningrad became an exclave, a small region separated from the rest of Russia - somewhat as West Berlin had been cut off from West Germany during the Cold War (though, of course, without the Iron Curtain). People began to talk about Kaliningrad and its nearly one million inhabitants as a potential flashpoint.

One of the big fears of Kaliningrad's neighbors was the allegedly large number of Russian military units there, many of which had been withdrawn from Germany or other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Even now, some officials at the European Commission still believe that the Russian military presence in Kaliningrad is a major problem.

That is not true. There are 25,000 Russian troops from all branches of the armed forces in Kaliningrad, according to U.S. estimates. The Russian figure is pretty much the same, although Poland has a slightly larger number. There is a lot of military hardware there but most of it is probably useless.

The Russian fear is that there may be some former Prussians who still claim that the territory belongs to Germany, but they are small in number and politically insignificant. There are a few people in Lithuania who do indeed claim that. But the bottom line is that the Lithuanian government does not want (nor does any of Kaliningrad's neighbors) to inherit 950,000 Russian speakers, who are living in poverty in Kaliningrad. So, Moscow does not have to worry about foreign claims to Kaliningrad.

Another concern, among Poles, Lithuanians and Russians, is that the Germans who once lived there will want to return. But there is no cause for concern here either. Former East Prussian residents go there for a weekend, try to find their old homestead, fail to do so, and go back home despondent.

At one point in the 1990s, some Russians hoped that Kaliningrad would become a Baltic Hong Kong - a gateway for Russia into Europe. That idea quickly dissipated, because after the Soviet Union's demise, the economy of Kaliningrad collapsed, just like those of Russia's 88 other regions. Kaliningrad also depended upon military spending to sustain its economy but the Russian government could not afford to maintain large bases there. Consequently, Kaliningrad suffered not only economic problems but horrendous social problems as well.

The incidence of AIDS in Kaliningrad is much higher than in other parts of Russia, and there is a great deal of criminal activity. Instead of a Hong Kong, analysts by the late 1990s began to talk of Kaliningrad as a "black hole" in Europe. There were fears that Kaliningrad's problems would spill over into the heartland of Europe, and that the criminal elements there would come to resemble the narco-criminal groups in Latin America.

For their part, the Kaliningraders concluded that henceforth they would have to depend upon the kindness of strangers to become viable. The biggest stranger in the neighborhood is, of course, the European Union. But the European Union has resisted the recommendation that it provide an economic development program for Kaliningrad. The European Union has a so-called "Northern dimension," a plan to expand trade and development in its Northern regions, but the plan has not yet gone very far. So the situation in Kaliningrad remains desperate.

The immediate problem facing Kaliningraders is a consequence of the European Union's plans to admit new members from Central and Eastern Europe. Once Lithuania and Poland become members, they will become subject to the rules of the European Union's Schengen Agreement, which provides for the abolition of internal border controls inside a more tightly policed common EU external frontier.

That means that Kaliningraders will lose their existing right to enter the two countries without a visa. Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that with the adoption of Schengen, Russians will be denied their human rights, because they will need visas to transit from Little Russia, Kaliningrad, to Big Russia. The EU position is that this is a legal and technical question, not a political issue.

Moscow complains that the European Union does not have a Kaliningrad policy, but Moscow does not have a policy either - or at least not one that is very well defined. For years, the Russian Foreign Ministry has been insisting that Kaliningrad is just one of 89 regions, and that it is no different from all the others. In fact, attempts to revitalize Kaliningrad by creating a free or special economic zone were undermined by politicians in Moscow who refused to pass the necessary enabling legislation.

EU officials have said that Moscow is playing the Kaliningrad card to gain broader concessions from the European Union. The Russians tried a similar ploy at the time of the first round of NATO enlargement, which extended the alliance to the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary: some officials in Moscow hinted at threats to deploy nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad if former Warsaw Pact countries were admitted to the Atlantic Alliance. Obviously that tactic did not work.

The Russian response to the European Union is that enlargement is a political issue, not a legal or technical question. Moscow argues that Portugal, for instance, was invited into the European Union not because it met certain economic criteria, but for political reasons. Equally, the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy is a product not of economic dynamics but of the power of the French agricultural lobby. Some countries also became members of the euro zone for political, rather than economic, reasons.

A number of Russians now fear that EU enlargement represents a greater danger to Russia than NATO enlargement - if it entails Russia's exclusion from EU markets. Even before he became President, Mr. Putin proclaimed that economic revitalization is crucial to the restoration of the Russian state. Access to the EU economic space is a central strategic security question for Russia. It is not a technical question.

In fact, Mr. Putin's entire westward political orientation could be at risk. He is not as powerful as many people think. He has played a weak hand very cleverly, but there are many people in the military and among the oligarchs who are not happy about his westward tilt. The Russian military does not want to reform and many oligarchs are afraid of closer economic relations with the West - they are frightened not only by the prospect of competition but also by demands for greater transparency.

Mr. Putin's special representative for Kaliningrad in negotiations with the European Union, Dmitri Rogozin, is a tough hardliner. This is Mr. Putin's way of sending a message to the European Union about the kind of people with whom he has to deal. At the same time, he is trying to get Mr. Rogozin and his friends to support his westward political orientation.

The upshot of all this is that the Kaliningrad question has become a test of relations between Russia and the EU. Of course, Russia must take a number of steps in order to become a viable partner. Many analysts, including Russians, would argue, for example, that Mr. Putin must make serious changes in the Foreign Ministry, by placing people there who know something about the European Union and are prepared to cooperate with it. The European Union, for its part, should learn more about Kaliningrad, and recognize that it poses a political, not merely a technical, challenge to Europe.

In conclusion, the dispute between EU and Russia over Kaliningrad prompts us to ask a pivotal question: can the European Union develop a common foreign policy towards Russia? I would argue the answer is No, not at the present time. The European Union does not have the infrastructure to do so. European Commission President Romano Prodi, Commissioner Chris Patten, and Javier Solana, the High Representative for foreign policy, do not have the staff, the resources or the mandate to negotiate with Russia. Member states also remain wary of allowing Brussels to dictate foreign policy to them.

Furthermore, British Prime Minister Tony Blair says that Europe should become "a superpower not a superstate." But the European Union cannot become a superpower until it becomes a superstate. What is more, until Europe becomes a superstate, the unilateralists in the United States will dominate the international agenda; a prospect that has aroused great concern in Europe. But while Europe collectively has the population, the money and the technological and military capability to be a superpower, it does not have the political will. That is one of the major issues facing the European Union as it expands eastward and struggles to meet the challenges of the early 21st century.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2002.