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Kaliningrad – the troubled man of Europe

One would find it hard to name a part of the former Soviet Union, where high expectations and great potential have been wasted so miserably as in the tiny Russian “island” situated in the heart of Europe – the Kaliningrad Oblast. Amidst tumultuous 1990s many romantically predicted that Kaliningrad would soon become either a “Baltic Hong Kong” or the “Fourth Baltic Republic.” The past twenty five years have dispelled these sentiments leaving instead merely one word applicable to the current situation of Kaliningrad – disappointment. What are the reasons of such an inglorious outcome and how is it possible that an area bordering dynamically developing members of the European Union is now reduced to the doles of Moscow in exchange for being a “scarecrow of Europe”?

July 29, 2016 - Sergey Sukhankin - Articles and Commentary


Two approaches

The nature of this discouraging outcome should be tackled from two diverging perspectives: the first one based on reactionary conservatism and the other one – on realistic assessment.

The former is shamelessly plane and remarkably convenient: the alleged “encirclement” by Russophobic countries (aka Poland and Lithuania) acting at the direct command of NATO that are trying to “stifle” Kaliningrad. By causing economic predicaments the countries render it instrumental for the Kremlin to unleash the new wave of militarisation, whereby protecting local population. This glance fails to capture even a semblance of truth. Being morbidly concerned with finding the guilty party, it omits numerous EU-inspired regional projects with participation of Kaliningrad that were designed in such a way as to facilitate its integration in the “Baltic Sea Rim.” This approach breeds xenophobia and suspicion toward neighbors as well as a negative attitude to the “outer world.” After all, is it not the main goal of Kremlin`s policies?   

The second view (not so popular among Russian expert community) does not aim to find the guilty party: being instead chiefly concerned with the nature of existing problems, it admits the fact that the “Baltic European” has now turned into the “troubled man of Europe.”

Challenges of transformation

The collapse of the USSR brought two main outcomes for Kaliningrad: it destroyed (quite painfully) an image of the world shaped by the artificial isolation imposed by the Soviet model and simultaneously presented an opportunity to become a prosperous “bridge” between two centres of power. This position was mainly upheld by local intellectual elites with Yurii Matochkin (the first governor after 1991) who viewed Kaliningrad as the “Baltic Hong Kong.” He was also seeking greater cooperation with neighbors and understood market-oriented reforms and economic liberalisation as the only appropriate remedy. As it turned out, this path appeared outlandish (even dangerous!) for both Moscow and locals: bitten by Leonid Gorbenko (the new governor of Kaliningrad) Matochkin practically retired from big politics. The ensued period predetermined the fate of Kaliningrad killing the hopes and bringing the “Big Russia” to a small Kaliningrad. International scandals, corruption, smuggling, miserable economic performance, awful international reputation, and a widening gap with its geographic neighbors were all part of the grim reality faced by Kaliningrad by the beginning of the new millennium. Incidentally, the topic of Kaliningrad was usually avoided by both the Kremlin (embarrassed with it) and European capitals that did not want to break the semblance of stable relations with the Russian Federation.

Kaliningrad and Putin`s Russia: stability or loss of hope?     

Instability, anarchy, poverty, and injured pride were the key factors that enticed Kaliningrad society to gladly embrace the changing Russia. Initially Putin`s regime was able to deal with all four simultaneously. The appointment of Admiral Vladimir Egorov cured the first two, the seemingly improving economic situation accommodated the third challenge, and the initiation of militarisation was a response to the last one.

Moreover, the image of Kaliningrad was rapidly changing due to vigorous activities of Russian propaganda. For instance, the 3-day 750th anniversary of Kaliningrad (former Königsberg) in 2005 became an event of unprecedented scope bringing together the leaders of Russia, Germany, and France, whereas Polish and Lithuanian delegations were demonstratively not invited.

Nonetheless, the gleeful tinsel masked perils that were not fully comprehended by either party concerned. The dizziness of dubious success coupled with paranoiac obsession with “colour revolutions” and a strong desire to drive a wedge between the “old” and “new” Europe, predetermined the new fate chosen by the Kremlin for Kaliningrad that would soon lose the vestiges of its freedom.

In this regard the protest movement of 2009-2010 against the openly authoritarian populist Georgii Boos (handpicked by Putin) should not be seen as a manifestation of civic duty or an ideologically-inspired action (as in Kyiv, Gdansk or Tbilisi), but as a mere reaction to the worsening economic conditions. That is probably why the flames of dissatisfaction will have extinguished so easily.  

The inexorability of history   

The belief that the Kaliningrad Oblast is special and therefore requires a particular “care” has been endeared by the local elite right from the moment it was conceived. The collapse of the USSR did not wipe out this tradition; on the contrary, the physical isolation seems to have only amplified the most acute and disgusting forms thereof. 

Undoubtedly, one may refer to a highly inefficient economic model (worsened by enclave/exclave status), one that has been for years crippling local development and bereaving Kaliningrad from sustainable growth. But is this model not a direct result of a phenomenon engendered by the most disfigured patterns of the Soviet ideology? In my opinion the “Kaliningrad identity” is the main culprit here. Unlike many scholars, I deem this phenomenon to be directly linked to the Soviet period when allegedly precarious geopolitical location of the oblast and its “dark history” started to be handsomely compensated by Moscow breeding distorted self-perception, ignorance, and a sense of loath and a deep fear of competition.   


“It will always remain a region of confrontation…”

Beginning in 2010 Kaliningrad has gotten dragged into a new whirlpool of dangerous events caused by the worsening relations between Russia and its “enemies,” which ushered in a new wave of militarisation with painful reminiscence of the local history of 1945 – 1991 Russian military fortress.

However, the act of militarisation itself does not fully reflect the whole nature of hazardous transformations that are currently underway. The rhetoric portraying Kaliningrad as a “battlefield” between Europe and Russia is now becoming dangerously popular. The matter of perplexity is that this picturesque definition is not taken from the dictionary of the Russian Armed Forces, yet has been implied by Patriarch Kirill during the Forum of the World Russian People’s Council in Kaliningrad in 2015.

Furthermore, a group of local ultra-conservative imperial-minded scholars, politicians, and intellectuals alike have been supported by the top-rank Russian authorities in Moscow. Speculating about the “creeping Germanisation” these forces managed to draw attention of open xenophobes and nationalists to the “Kaliningrad problem,” triggering a witch hunt and turning the oblast into an “ideological battlefield.” For example, the “German-Russian House” has been recognised as a foreign agent. Moreover, local “patriotic circles” (mainly the Night Wolves in alliance with the Cossacks) have become exorbitantly confident and increasingly aggressive.

This manifests the bitter outcome that is quite difficult to reconcile with: Kaliningrad has become the “troubled man of Europe” with an unclear future and drifting away from what it should have become two decades ago.

Sergey Sukhankinin a historian from Kaliningrad and Associate Expert at the International Center for Policy Studies in Kyiv.

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