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Russia: EU's Commissioner Discusses Kaliningrad's Future

  • Sophie Lambroschini

European Union External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten is meeting with Russian officials in Moscow today and tomorrow to explore the implications for Russia of the EU's projected expansion to the East. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports one important issue to be discussed was the impact on Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad which -- once the Union's enlargement takes place -- would be totally surrounded by EU nations.

Moscow, 18 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten arrived in Moscow last night for two days of discussions with Russian officials on the likely effects on Russia of the EU's coming eastward expansion. The talks were due to take up the prickly problem of Kaliningrad, a small Russian-held exclave of a million people sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

After the Union expands to include 10 Central and East European candidate nations -- including Poland and the three Baltic states -- Kaliningrad would be entirely encircled by EU members.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin seized Kaliningrad (in German, Koenigsberg) from Germany at the end of World War II. It became a closed military center and the headquarters of the Russia Baltic Fleet until the collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years ago. Since then, Kaliningrad's economy has disintegrated, with almost one-third of the population now living below subsistence level, and it has become a haven for organized cross-border crime.

In talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov scheduled for 19 January, Patten is expected to expand on a European Commission report released yesterday. The report outlined how the EU and Russia could cooperate on Kaliningrad.

Agreement between the EU and Russia on a plan for Kaliningrad -- which remains a Russian military base -- is seen as a test of Russian and EU cooperation over enlargement. But the commission's report failed to discuss the critical military issue.

The EU is clearly wary of what could become a festering region of crime and disease within an expanded Union. In Brussels yesterday, Patten said the EU is planning to help Kaliningrad, but not, he said, out of feeling of "altruism." He said the enclave's organized-crime networks, heavy pollution, and extensive drug and health problems have obvious cross-border implications for the EU.

Kaliningrad is also estimated to have some of the highest AIDS and tuberculosis rates in all of Russia. And, along with Saint Petersburg, Kaliningrad is considered one of the Baltic Sea's main polluters.

Speaking to our correspondent today, Patten's spokesman Gunnar Wiegand detailed the environmental issues involved.

"Well, there's very heavy pollution in the oblast [that is, area]-- in particular, linked to the heritage of the military base. And also some other activities that lead to heavy pollution. It's essentially a question of waste, of nuclear waste in the region, and other pollution more linked to water pollution or air pollution."

EU enlargement would also curtail Kaliningrad citizens' freedom to travel, an issue mentioned in the Commission report. EU visa requirements would help reduce -- if not end -- the current massive smuggling of cigarettes and alcohol to neighboring Poland, an important source of revenue for many impoverished Kaliningrad citizens. It would also make it more complicated for Kaliningraders to travel to the rest of Russia. Wiegand says open borders for the exclave are not under consideration, but the EU would introduce more lenient rules and reduced fees for visas:

"The first step would be that we ask member states to establish consulates in Kaliningrad to facilitate issuing visas, so that Kaliningrad citizens wouldn't have to travel to Moscow to get them. The Commission did not propose that there should be no visas. But there are special arrangements that can be found for border regions -- which we [the EU] have in place in several other regions as well in order to facilitate cross-border traffic -- and to have visas which would be of a more permanent nature, allowing for multiple entries."

The Commission's proposals also include carrying out an assessment of the impact of EU eastward expansion on the enclave's trade. The Commission says enlargement would be profitable for Kaliningrad -- particularly in lowering current high Lithuanian custom duties, which would be decreased to EU levels.

Until now, Russian officials have generally been tolerant of the idea of EU expansion, but many think that the degree of EU economic support to develop Kaliningrad's infrastructures will be a key factor. And some Russian analysts have warned that EU enlargement -- if not carefully regulated -- could lead to what they call "losing Kaliningrad" by destabilizing economic, communication, and energy ties with Russia proper.

At a Moscow conference in November that brought together EU representatives and their Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian counterparts, analyst Natalya Smorodindkaya called on the EU to act quickly. She pointed out that Kaliningrad residents are, on average, 65 times poorer than EU citizens -- and also considerably poorer than citizens of mainland Russia. Such disparities, Smorodindkaya said, could lead to Kaliningrad's future isolation both from the EU and from Russia proper.

Russia's military presence in the Kaliningrad region remains a crucial question. While smaller than in Soviet times, Russia's Baltic Fleet is still based in the Kaliningrad region Baltiisk port.

In the past two months, the future of Russian military activity in Kaliningrad has received considerable publicity. First, in November, former Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas said that in his opinion a successful future for Kaliningrad would imply demilitarization. Then, two weeks ago, unconfirmed U.S. press reports (in the conservative "Washington Times") said that Russia had transferred strategic nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad.

The press reports were greeted with skepticism by knowledgeable analysts and were flatly denied by Moscow. But they did serve as a reminder of Kaliningrad's strategic interest for Russia -- an interest many believe Moscow will hardly give up easily.

Today, as if to reinforce that point, State Duma Defense Committee Chairman Andrei Nikolaev issued a thinly veiled warning to a visiting Swedish delegation. Nikolaev said that future Russian military activity in the Kaliningrad region will depend on the presence of what he called "threats" -- such as NATO exercises in the Baltic Sea northern region.

However important the military issues may be, they do not fall within the EU Commission's competence. And according to spokesman Wiegand, they will probably not be discussed by Patten during his meetings with Ivanov, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and other Russian officials.

"It is not up to us to comment on the size, the function of that military base [in Kaliningrad]. This is not the objective of this paper which has been launched by the European Commission."

Wiegand adds that EU Commission will only address the military problem from a socio-economic point of view. If the exclave's military complex is reduced, he notes, that would likely increase further Kaliningrad's already extremely high unemployment rate.

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