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Kaliningrad, Putin`s Russia and Count Valuev

In 1855 a notorious ultra-conservative Ukrainophobe Count Peter Valuev, disgruntled with the humiliating experience of the Crimean War (1853–56) and the crumbling façade of the Russian imperial court, came up with a sobering essay, in which he rightfully captured the real state of affairs in 19th century Russia: “on the surface – glitter, inside – rot”. Indeed, it would not be a mistake to argue that the events that have befallen Kaliningrad over the past several months have made this formula fully applicable to this westernmost Russian region; in a sense summarizing the twenty five years of its post-Soviet development. This analysis seeks to provide an answer for the following question: does the image of Kaliningrad, as presented by Russian mass media and officials, have much in common with the reality?

October 20, 2016 - Sergey Sukhankin - Articles and Commentary


Building the “Potemkin Villages” – creating the myth

The advent of Vladimir Putin in the year 2000 was accompanied by skyrocketing prices of energy resources, which allowed for the redecoration of the somewhat ramshackle Russian façade. By then Kaliningrad Oblast – a region physically separated from the mainland (by borders of sovereign countries) and its neighbours (by the remnants of an invisible ideological wall erected by the Soviets) – was glad to embrace this new, quite promising reality. Formerly known as the Soviet “military fortress” on the Baltic and later deteriorating into the “black hole” of Europe, the oblast would be artificially kept afloat by assistance handsomely granted by Moscow in exchange for obedience and unconditional docility. In exchange a key condition was to be fulfilled: Kaliningrad must not be assertive in foreign contacts and must abstain from developing closer ties with its geographical neighbours. In exchange Moscow promised to drastically improve living conditions in the enclave/exclave and the image of Kaliningrad both internally and abroad. In spite of the apparent beauty of this promise, this model constructed by the Kremlin bitterly resembled the deeply corrupt patterns promoted by the Soviet regime.  

However, despite sound rhetoric and solemn promises, it turned out that Moscow had neither a clear strategy nor a deep understanding of the local conditions and environment. This largely explains the tactics that Russia was to rely upon: constructing the notorious “Potemkin Villages” – to make a good impression without creating any substantial change. It needs to be noted that the initial results of the “reforms” were loudly praised by many domestic and foreign experts. On paper the local economy – boosted by the new SEZ regime (implemented in 2006) – was booming: growing by 12 per cent per year it was outpacing not only the Russian average but also the neighbouring states. This “dizziness of success” must have had such an indelible effect on both Moscow and the local elite that the oblast’s governor, Georgy Boos, cheerfully promised to “fulfil the five-year plan in four years” – to catch up with Poland and Lithuania and to get closer to Germany in terms of economic development. Moreover, it was naively estimated that Kaliningrad would soon become a regional intellectual centre and a destination for ethnic Russians “being chased out” of the Baltic States. Nevertheless, the wind of global financial crisis unmercifully dispelled these sandcastles making Kaliningrad face harsh reality.  

Shaking the structure – preserving the essence  

In autumn of 2009 and early spring of 2010 Boos would be driven out from Kaliningrad by mass public protests that consisted of up to 15,000 people – an astronomic figure for Kaliningrad. Aside from purely economic claims (which the Russian ruling elite could grudgingly reconcile with) the Moscow-promoted governor was leaving the oblast to declarations of “United Russia – go to Russia!” and “Down with Boos, down with Putin!” This galvanisation of anti-government movement in the westernmost Russian region (given its history and deeply rooted Russian phobias pertaining to separatism) was construed as an emergency situation. But many prognoses turned out to be wrong. Kaliningrad was destined to become neither the “Russian Gdansk” nor a “Maidan” as it might have been hoped for. Moscow managed to persuade the organisers to “drop the puerility” and get back to business.

In the end, what initially appeared to be an arduous challenge would be easily extinguished with the help of increasing financial assistance from Mosocw. Particular attention should be paid to the fact that the system established after 1991 in Kaliningrad has not been dismantled: the new governor – locally born Nikolay Tsukanov – became the watchdog  (if not even more devoted) of Putin`s regime who would (as time has shown) be able to prove his loyalty and “patriotism” to an extent unheard of before. Once again, this new portion of financial injections and privileges would effectively conceal the ugly reality and even produce “evidence” of improving conditions. The new governor did not shy away from absolutely fantastic revelations about “Kaliningrad overtaking Lithuania and almost reaching Poland”, wrathful accusations of the West for plotting to prepare “Maidan” in Kaliningrad and expressions of  his personal pity for Lithuania, practically “abandoned by half of its population”. Particularly exhilarating were his claims about “Poland envying Kaliningrad Oblast” and data related to Lithuania experiencing an almost Biblical exodus that was based on “observations of his long time friends”. 

In the end, however, the Kremlin`s unwitting gambles in Ukraine and Syria coupled with collapsing prices of oil made their own adjustments to this bravado. The piling Problems that have been skilfully veiled by Moscow and sugar-coated by local authorities, eventually resurfaced revealing the real extent of hardships.  

Destroying myths – facing the sobering reality

The three most noticeable events that occurred in July 2016 – the “decapitation of the Baltic Sea Fleet” (first half of July), the “Patrushev Commission” (second half of July) and the sacking of the governor Tsukanov (end of July) – administered the final blow to the image of Kaliningrad Oblast meticulously constructed by the Russian propaganda machine.

The first event, unravelled the deeply corrupt core and façade-like nature of the Baltic Sea Fleet, which was previously deemed to be a pillar of Russian regional geopolitical ambitions and military might. As it turned out, the locally stationed forces are not even remotely close to being the “pillar of the throne” but are in fact an embarrassing liability and a financial graveyard . This event dispelled the myths related to the Baltic Sea Fleet`s impregnability.

The second event, presented as a field session of the Russian Security Council headed by Nikolai Patrushev, was to examine the seriousness of conditions in the region. In spite of the traditional opaqueness and scarcity of Russian official sources, the event should be seen as a true eye-opener. Patrushev admitted that the region is in an extremely difficult condition: its economy is underdeveloped, life quality is incomparable with its neighbours’ and smuggling and illicit extraction of amber is an ulcer that has not been cured since the early 1990s. This has effectively destroyed the myths of “Kaliningrad prosperity” and emerging competitiveness.

Finally, governor Tsukanov was sacked and superseded by Putin`s personal bodyguard, Evgenii Zinichev, who in turn would be replaced by  thirty-year-old Anton Alikhanov. This revolving door of governors within the local executive branch has tarnished the image of political stability in the Russian enclave/exclave, once again proving right the infamous “Prussian curse” of Kaliningrad governors.  

Undoubtedly, these upsetting events should have produced a decisive response from Moscow. The response ensued, but what did it aim to achieve? Dealing with deeply rooted problems or patching up the crumbling façade?    

… and still not seeing the origin of troubles

In spite of feverish moves and sporadic attempts to change the discouraging reality, Moscow still appears to be missing the nature of the malaise that has been haunting Kaliningrad for decades. The grim fact is that Moscow cannot change the situation overnight nor does it have a magic wand to get it done. But most importantly, it does not have any alternative vision of Kaliningrad that would drastically diverge from its current status. Naturally, how can the Kremlin simply change the model it has been cherishing all along, even if this results in Kaliningrad becoming an area of dialogue and cooperation, if its goals for the Baltic are different?

Apparently, the change of appearance, mass firing of functionaries and other “sweeping” measures are nothing more than attempts to somehow cover the rotten reality with  new artificially erected constructions. The most difficult and perplexing aspect of the “Kaliningrad malady” is that it has been firmly in place since the Soviet period and is not likely to be changed by a number of palliative (and rather incoherent) measures. The very system of compensations and subsidies lasting from the time when Kaliningrad had just acquired its current name has, in many ways, negatively affected the mentality and outlook of local residents cultivating distorted self-perception and inaccurate understanding of the “outer world”.Wielding outstanding geographical location and being supported by European countries via various joint projects and initiatives, Kaliningrad has not managed to break the “vicious circle” it was dragged into by the Soviet regime. But salvation did not come with the advent of the “new Russia” either. In addition to pervasive militarisation it remains one of the most corrupt Russian regions, which is now reluctantly admitted even by Moscow. Perhaps, the most gruesome aspect of the current modus vivendi lies in a different dimension: instead of being a bridge between powerful players, the oblast is rapidly turning into a secluded bastion in the field of ideological battle between Russia and the West.  

Scenarios of future development

Having discussed the key elements of the most recent events, it would be worthwhile to present two main scenarios of future developments in Kaliningrad:

1. Pessimistic scenario. Deterioration in Kaliningrad will be accelerated by worsening economic conditions in the Russian Federation. Taking into consideration the scarcity of resources currently available, the Kremlin would consider a greater strengthening of control over the oblast via various means, such as, expanding reliance on the “Iskander diplomacy” and further militarization of Kaliningrad Oblast. Growing poverty and despair will lead to either massive exodus from Kaliningrad and/or could be amplified by outbursts of public discontent similar to the events that occurred in 2009/10. 

2. Realistic scenario. Kaliningrad continues its development along the “path of dependency” trajectory. The Kremlin, being afraid of separatism and the “ghost of irredentism” other regional actors, will be able to find necessary resources to ensure a certain minimum that will prevent Kaliningrad from slipping into the abyss of havoc, anti-governmental moods and actions. Some public discontent stemming from the worsening economic situation might appear on the surface but these sentiments would have nothing to do with value-based scruples of the local people and are likely to be extinguished quickly.

Undoubtedly, the events might follow a “third” trajectory, or some intermediary road, as was the case in the course of the so-called “tangerine spring”. Judging by local historical experience within past fifteen years one might presume that in the end Moscow will manage to preserve the glitter in a desperate attempt to cover the rotten structure.    

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

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