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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Internationalization Of Kaliningrad

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 20 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A Nordic Council visit to Kaliningrad, the non-contiguous portion of the Russian Federation on the Baltic Sea, is likely to mean both less and more than some of the initial media coverage in that region has suggested.

It is likely to mean less in that virtually all participants are committed to avoiding any suggestion that such sessions will point to independence for this formerly German territory seized by Stalin at the end of World War II.

But it is likely to mean more because growing ties between Kaliningrad and the Nordic countries are likely to become a model for other Russian regions to follow. And to the extent they do, the Kaliningrad sessions could thus promote the kind of regionalism that Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has pledged to fight.

On Tuesday, a delegation of parliamentarians from the Nordic Council countries -- Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark -- arrived in Kaliningrad to participate in discussions with officials and political leaders in that Russian region.

The sessions this week, the first between the Nordic Council and Kaliningrad, are taking place under the terms of a framework agreement between the Nordic Council, on the one hand, and the Baltic countries, Saint Petersburg oblast, and Kaliningrad, on the other. And they are slated to focus on security, ecology, investment, and education.

Precisely because the Nordic countries played a key role in helping Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to recover their independence from Moscow, some in both these countries and elsewhere have suggested that Nordic involvement with Kaliningrad could have a similar impact there.

But such suggestions are almost certainly overblown. Few in Kaliningrad appear to be interested in independence. And even fewer in the Nordic countries are interested in promoting it.

In contrast to the Baltic states, Kaliningrad has no tradition of independent statehood that might be reestablished. And despite the small "People of Koenigsburg" movement at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, both the officials and population of this oblast overwhelmingly see their territory as part of Russia.

At the same time, the Nordic countries have been careful not to do or say anything that might be seen as promoting the idea of Kaliningrad's independence. All of them oppose the kind of instability that such a step would entail, and many of them see a Russian presence on the Baltic as a useful counterweight to German power.

But if the Nordic Council visit does not point to such radical outcomes, this internationalization of Kaliningrad nonetheless has three important consequences not only for Kaliningrad but for the broader region as well.

First and most immediately important, expanded international participation in the economic and political life of Kaliningrad could help that region overcome the economic, ecological, and health crises that have intensified there since the end of the USSR.

Cut off from central Russia by the independence of Lithuania and Belarus, Kaliningrad which was a major port has seen its economic prospects decline precipitously. It is one of the most polluted places in the world. And its population suffers from a variety of health problems, including a rising number of AIDS cases.

And neither the oblast itself nor Moscow is in a position to provide the kind of assistance that would allow the region to recover. Perhaps the Nordic countries can help without the potentially negative political resonance that assistance from Germany, Poland, or some Western countries might generate.

Second, this Nordic visit, in conjunction with other institutional developments such as the establishment of a Nordic Council information bureau in October 1997, may lead other Russian regions -- particularly St. Petersburg and Karelia -- to seek expanded ties with Nordic countries.

Such ties between regions of different countries are part and parcel of European political development. Across the continent, the rise of supranational institutions and cooperative groups has had the consequence of making the regions within countries more rather than less important.

Up to now, this European trend has not had much impact on the Russian Federation both because European institutions have not focused on that immense country and because many in Moscow and the regions tend to view any such cooperation as the first step toward slipping out from central control.

And third, the Nordic Council meetings in Kaliningrad are likely to be important as a test of the intentions of Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's promise to "root out" any separatist tendencies in his country.

If Primakov and his government view Nordic involvement in Kaliningrad as entirely normal and hence welcome, the meetings there this week are likely to help Kaliningrad and other Russian regions to modernize, integrate, and overcome their various problems.

But if Moscow reacts in a negative way and attempts to prevent the development of the kind of ties that other regions in other countries have with foreign states, then that decision will almost certainly give a very different content to the internationalization of Kaliningrad and thus provoke what most of those involved want to avoid.