(Un)convenient Kaliningrad and Kremlin’s relationship

Military during training in Kaliningrad oblast

Back in the Soviet times, Kaliningrad was a militarized territory, closed from foreign eyes but playing a strategic role – a military outpost directed at the West. After the Cold War, Kaliningrad had become an area separated from the metropolis (The Federal Centre) in terms of the territory, and had in time found itself in the crossroad of different security systems.

The changing geopolitical environment in the Baltic Sea region has given a new but a relatively vague geopolitical status that is being actively debated even today. However, is the development of Kaliningrad unique and unrelated to the rest of the Russia? How valuable are reflections on the region’s exclusive identity, raising expectations of potentially different relationship with its neighbours, in particular, Lithuania and Poland? What is the influence of the federal government in Kaliningrad?

The political and economic Status Quo

Russia is more than interested to include this exclave into “the Great Politics”. For instance, in the context of NATO and EU development, Kremlin, raising the question of military and civil transit, tried using Kaliningrad as an instrument to stop the entrenchment of euro-Atlantic institutions in the Baltic states. Currently, the militarization of Kaliningrad is used as a means to discourage NATO from strengthening the visibility of the military and political alliance (soldier and military equipment stationing, etc.) in the Baltic states, hoping to leave the Baltic countries as deficient NATO state-members.

Hopes that the closed region would open up and give up its military values were quickly lost. Russian’s Baltic navy base and the only ice-free port in the Baltic sea remains, along with approximately 25 to 35 thousand soldiers, according to different data. This has a lot to do with the stationing of “Iskander” missiles, that received great attention, and Kremlin’s intention to show that the leverage of the regional military power still belongs to Russia, despite the stationing of NATO forces. This received great attention, since the missiles could technically reach as far as Berlin.

Nevertheless, Kaliningrad does not avoid controversies, even if considering it as an undoubtedly militarized territory. In the summer of 2016, Russia’s Baltic navy Fleet Commander and 50 other high-rank military officers were dismissed. This shows that even the ever-lasting pride in military capabilities meets practical issues due to watered-down infrastructures and several other reasons.

In any case, the continuous militarization that encouraged the seclusion from its neighbouring EU states, had to be partially compensated with financial leverages. Notwithstanding, the economic condition of Kaliningrad in the context of Russian regions is not satisfactory. Today the region’s economic situation is characterized by a small market, (close to 1 million residents) and undeveloped goods and service supply that leads to dependency of goods and resources import and sets a high level of prices. The poor economic situation is also seen in Kaliningrad’s budget – 39% of 2014 budget was received from Moscow. The average wage in the area reaches 26.669 Ruble (around 344 EUR) when the average wage in the rest of the country is 31.485 Ruble (around 405 EUR). The GDP for one resident does not reach an average of the Russian Federation. In addition, the bigger part of goods produced in the region is exported to the Russian market and Russia’s companies are main investors in Kaliningrad. Kaliningrad is not attractive to investors for some other reasons, typical to Russia – corruption, lack of property protection and narrow ties between politics and business. The remoteness of the region from the rest of the country also affects the transportation expenses and high energy prices.

The country’s leaders cannot hide either – the secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev stated that the living cost, corruption and the overall current situation is intolerably bad.

The control of the central power

The reaction of the Federal government to the current processes has been radical. The governor was replaced twice so far – Nikolay Tsukanov was changed by Putin’s body guard Evgeni Zinichev, who was shortly replaced with a 30 year-old Anton Alikhanov. N. Patrsushev has also ensured that Kaliningrad will come under the protection of the Security Council by firstly giving an additional 3 billion EUR subsidy to save the region that should be used by 2020.

These events have once again confirmed the fact that the influence of federal government in Kaliningrad is not to be taken for granted.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Kaliningrad as in other regions of Russian Federation, local political groups trying to independently govern their territories and negotiate a great autonomy from Russia was not a rare occurrence. Although after 2000, when Putin became the president, the centralization of governing in the region strengthened. This was determined by the law on regional budget reallocation through Moscow, that resulted in local elites having to show their loyalty to the centre, to receive more money. For example, local parties or political movements in the regions were banned and replaced by political parties working on a federal level.

The immediate priority for Russia’s regional politics is the weakening of any potential threats to Russia’s territorial integrity, that results in strict political control applied and loyalty of residents and politicians sustained by various economic means. Hence, even the strong tendencies of separatism all over Russia, after the collapse of Soviet Union encouraged public debates on the “German” past of Kaliningrad and a discourse of identity, different form the one encouraged by the political centre, did not have any major political implications. The average of protesting is higher in Kaliningrad than in the rest of the country, but a survey conducted in 2015 revealed that 89% of the residents stated being content with President Putin, carrying out an aggressive foreign policy. In addition, the annexation of the Crimea was met with a march of ten thousand and the number of people primarily relating to Russia has increased.

However, this did not permit Secretary Patrushev of the Security Council of Russia from emphasizing that the residents of Kaliningrad must be protected from hostile information from outside. Poland’s response to this and some other decisions was strict – mobility through the border with Kaliningrad was constrained, as voiced to be motivated by security factors. The visa-free regime between Poland and Kaliningrad was considered to be as one of the greatest accomplishments in the efforts to revive rapprochement, however, currently, Russian citizens need to obtain a temporary Schengen visa in order to travel to Poland, that costs 35 EUR.

Does Kaliningrad have its unique identity?

The exclusive geographical status of Kaliningrad dictated a distinctive process of identity formation. The region, once referred to as Konigsberg, was part of the German East Prussia and the centre of cultural life, distinguished for its Germanic architecture, German language and other distinct life features. The situation drastically changed when The Second World War was coming to an end.

According to the 1945 agreement of the Potsdam Conference, Konigsberg became part of the Soviet Union. The Soviets, taking control of the region to their hands, started an aggressive cultural colonization. A year later the area was renamed to Kaliningrad and Russification started to be implemented. The events determined that other residents from all over the Soviet Union were relocated to the region. The non-Russian speaking communities that had lived in the area before were pushed away.

Even though the region was Russified, and its greatest part today reminds of another industrialized former Soviet Republic but not distinct in its prosperity, the construction of the “new type” of society has succeeded only partially. In spite of the Soviet Union trying to erase the memories of German legacy in Kaliningrad, the geographical situation and cultural artefacts that still remain, have reminded to the locals of “another” past. The “European” Kaliningrad has again become an emphasized characteristic of the region. For instance, State University of Kaliningrad has changed its name to Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, as to state its “come back” to Europe. The simplified transit has opened shops in Lithuania and Poland to the residents of Kaliningrad and revived its European discourse. Discussions on the “Amber Land” were again present.

Today the identity of Kaliningrad residents is named as a kaleidoscope of the “Russian soul and European pragmatism”, where Russian and European mentalities are unfolding. This creates the vision of a “different Russia in Europe”, according to which a resident of Kaliningrad can be in favour of European integration in particular countries but absolutely against NATO and other Western international structures. A concept of someone from Kaliningrad also connects being “Russian” and “European” simultaneously. Sociologist Mikhail Berendeev claims that the identity of “one from Kaliningrad” reminds of an “internet website” structure, where countless various choices and sections, raising questions that do not necessarily have a logical connection, are possible.

At first glance, such factors as the German legacy, European closeness and the fact that a great part of the residents of Kaliningrad feel distant from the main Russian territory, politics and realities, created a space to form an independent regional identity. This becomes obvious in last year’s political context – the mass protests against Kremlin’s politics that took place in 2010, forced the central power to dismiss Georgy Boos from the governor’s position. In 2015 Kaliningrad raised another rare challenge to Kremlin – the ruling party “United Russia” received no seats in the local council election in Baltijske, where an unexpected turnout of 47.7 % of residents voting was noted. In this way the region had once again caught the attention of Kremlin’s strategists to look at the Kaliningrad issue. Some claim that because of this reason in 2015 Russia’s regional elections were moved from December to September, when less people tend to vote and the environment for political manipulations is more convenient.

However, Kremlin is ready to apply a more aggressive control strategy, especially since the creation of another “special” zone in the Crimea. This does present some favourable outcome – according to a survey, carried about by Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in October 2015, more than ever before, today the citizens of Kaliningrad consider themselves part of Russia. The data reveals that 41.4% regard themselves as firstly citizens of Russia, not Kaliningrad (“I am a Russian, a Russian resident, a citizen of the Russian Federation). 2001-held survey showed different results – Russian identity took the 3rd place, with 24.6% of residents, while “I am a resident of my village/ city” and “I am a resident of Kaliningrad” were leading. Since then, the Russian identity “grew bigger” – 32.5% in 2004 and 36% in 2011 residents perceived themselves as firstly Russian. Naturally, this separation of variables may seem arbitral – almost half of the respondents of the region (49.5%) still ascribe themselves with one of the local, regional forms of identity (city/ Kaliningrad). Nevertheless, it is clear the support for local identity is decreasing (30.2% according to the survey carried out in 2001).

The future

According to historian Sergey Sukhankin, two possible directions exist for Kaliningrad.
The first, a rather pessimistic option, is that the region will continue facing serious economic issues, but will have no leverage to avoid them. The worsening situation will encourage an even bigger federal government control implementing “Iskander diplomacy” and developing militarization. However, this may also boost the public discontent and possibly lead to new protests.

The second, a more realistic scenario, emphasizes the trajectory of Kaliningrad’s dependency. The federal government, fearing separatism, will come up with new resources to support Kaliningrad and sustain the region’s minimal economic functioning. In this case, the possibility of the public’s discontent will decrease, but militarization will remain active. Any possible scenario suggests that Kaliningrad will remain the polygon of military power, where economic development is in stagnation.

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