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Neighbours in the time of cholera. Gdańsk and Kaliningrad.

Since July 1st 2019, it has been possible to to enter Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast with a free electronic visa. This could be a new chapter in the relationship between Gdańsk and its Russian partner.

August 2, 2019 - Paulina Siegień - Articles and Commentary

Gdańsk, view towards the old town. Photo: Paulina Siegień

Gdańsk and Kaliningrad are just 150 km apart. Both are located at the Baltic Sea coast and are important regional centers. In their long history these two cities have interchangeably attracted and repulsed one another due to wars and political arrangements. Today, despite political differences, they try to uphold dialogue.

A key date in the history of Gdańsk was September 1st 1939. The Nazi German attack on Westerplatte, a peninsula within the city limits where the Polish army had a transit depository, became the beginning of the Second World War. As a result of Hitler’s defeat and the following peace treaties, Gdańsk – which was a Free City under the authority of the League of Nations between the wars – was ceded to Poland (The Polish People’s Republic). Its German inhabitants were expelled. They were replaced with Poles who came from territories Poland lost to the Soviet Union.

A similarly fateful date for Königsberg was  April 9th 1945. It was the day that German command of the city was surrendered after a long and decimating Soviet siege. It did not mean the end of suffering for the people still in the city. It lasted until 1948, when their forced expulsion to West Germany was meticulously planned and finalised. This makes April 9th the beginning of the end of the world known to the people of Königsberg. It was already clear by then and confirmed in 1946 that Königsberg and the northern part of East-Prussia would become a part of the Soviet Union. The capital was renamed to Kaliningrad and the region would be known as the Kaliningrad Oblast. There was an influx of  displaced Soviet people into the region, mostly from areas in Central Russia destroyed by war.

The two cities seem to share similar stories – an obvious platform of understanding. Yet the direction these two stories have taken since has been very different.

This year will mark the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War and 74 years since the end of the war in Europe. Gdańsk is a big and fast developing Polish city and a regional center not only for the Pomeranian Voivodship but the entire north of Poland. It attracts millions of tourists year after year. After the war, Gdańsk placed itself at the center of European history once more – this time in a more positive context. The workers strike in the Gdańsk shipyards in 1980 became one of the key moments in the road towards dismantling Communist regimes in Central Europe. Lech Wałęsa, from Gdańsk, is recognised all over the world.

Shipyard in Gdańsk. Photo: Paulina Siegień

The fate of Kaliningrad was not filled with events of such stature, although this does not mean they were not turbulent. It was a time of constant inflow of migrants from every corner of the Soviet Union, rebuilding a city in a socialist spirit and getting accustomed to someone else’s territory – full of remnants of its former inhabitants. Until another chapter ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, after which Kaliningrad became one of the oblasts of the Russian Federation.

Gdańsk and Kaliningrad became partner cities in the post-war years. In the Soviet dictionary this partnership had an even stronger connotation as the cooperation was known as ‘“brotherly”. The 1990s was a time of transformation for both cities. The socio-economic changes were vast and not only positive. The newest feature for Kaliningrad was the opening of the borders. This state of affairs lasted until Poland and Lithuania joined NATO and the European Union, as it entailed stricter control of the external border and the introduction of visas.

It was not as people had no contact with each other across the border, but a proper breakthrough came in 2012 when Poland and Russia signed an agreement on local border traffic. This, in essence, meant a visa free system for the people of the Kaliningrad Oblast and the Polish border regions, which included Gdańsk.

This was a time when the streets of Gdańsk were full of Russians from Kaliningrad, who came to shop, sightsee, rest and look for other services. A rock band from Kaliningrad sang that it was easier to meet friends in the Polish shops across the border than in Kaliningrad itself. Cooperation between the cities and NGOs blossomed. The Mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, visited Kalliningrad and the then Governor of the Kaliningrad Oblast, Nikolay Tsukanov, would visit Gdańsk more than once.

Things were never the same again after the  2014 Ukrainian Maidan protests, the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. These events affected Polish-Russian cross border relations both economically and politically. The economic crisis in Russia made Polish shops less attractive than they had been in the years prior. Paweł Adamowicz told a Kaliningrad media outlet at the time that it was a normality test for both Poles and Russians. Not everyone passed that test as there were some reprehensible incidents, but both Gdańsk and Kaliningrad managed to keep in touch and uphold  dialogue within the constraints.

Suddenly, in 2016, the Polish government decided to suspend the agreement on local border traffic. This resulted in criticism from different levels of local governments on the Polish side of the border. The Polish government is convinced, until this day, that the Kaliningrad Oblast is a threat with provocations, trolls and agents. But looks can be deceiving, as cities like Gdańsk, Elbląg and Olsztyn have come to know the neighboring Russians as great customers. Irrespective of the political situation between the two states – where there is a border, there are neighbours, issues to be settled, and a need for contact. There are problems that are better solved together. There are always benefits to cooperation, even if it does not exclude threats.

This is why Gdańsk has created a special form of social diplomacy, a municipal diplomacy. In practice this means that the city authority keeps in touch with its counterpart in Kaliningrad. They do this  not by rejecting common initiatives, but by reaching out a hand to Russian visitors in the city. To answerg critics of this approach, they should be reminded of the fact that Poland had partner cities in Western Europe during communism. This is also why the tenth edition of the International Regatta for the Cup of Three Governors went on as planned this year. School exchanges and academic cooperation has also been renewed. Last year, ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, Gdańsk shared knowledge with Kaliningrad on how to host such an event, as Gdańsk had already organised the UEFA European Championship in 2012.

Kaliningrad. Photo: Paulina Siegień

Almost every person from Kaliningrad has been to Gdańsk, but few people from Gdańsk have visited Kaliningrad. This could change very soon, as the Russian side has literally opened its arms. From July 1st 2019, the citizens of 53 countries, including Poland and almost all EU members, can enter the Kaliningrad region with a free of charge electronic visa. Kaliningrad hopes that this will lead to more frequent visits from foreign tourists. Once this policy is implemented, this small area of Russia will be closer to Europe than they have been.

Paulina Siegień is a freelance journalist, writing about Polish-Russian neighbourhood and general Russian developments. She is currently working on a book about the Kaliningrad Oblast.

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