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Russia: Is Kaliningrad Looking For A New Identity?

  • Valentinas Mite

Kaliningrad is having an identity crisis of sorts. The former German territory that was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1945 is now an exclave of Russia, located some 400 kilometers from Russia proper. But the exclave's isolation is psychological as well as geographical. Sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland -- both scheduled to join the European Union in 2004 -- Kaliningrad is neither Western nor truly Russian. As its 900,000 residents face the prospect of life following EU expansion, some are suggesting that regional separatism in the exclave may be on the rise.

Prague, 10 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For more than a decade, the Kaliningrad region has lived as a Russian exclave, cut off from the mainland by Poland and Lithuania. For now, visiting either of those countries means a simple trip across the border.

Traveling to Russia itself is more complicated. For those who cannot afford to fly, the trip means a 24-hour train ride via Lithuania and Belarus to Moscow.

Kaliningrad's isolation from Russia proper may intensify still more in 2004, when Lithuania and Poland are slated to join the European Union. In addition to possibly complicating travel to Russia still further by adding the expense and trouble of transit visas, the change will see Kaliningrad in the curious position of being a Russian island surrounded on all sides by the West.

It is a dilemma that has some Kaliningrad residents questioning their ties to Russia. Are Kaliningraders Russian? Are they Western? Or are they something in between?

Grzegorz Gromadski, an analyst with Poland's Stefan Batory foundation, tells RFE/RL that life in the exclave is already different from life in Russia proper, and that Kaliningraders have long sought a separate identity for themselves: "It is a more European identity. They feel more European than, for example, people from Kazan or Voronezh, because they live near Sweden and Denmark and Germany and EU candidate countries. It is interesting to note that 50 percent or even more of Kaliningrad's young people have visited Poland, Lithuania, or even some of the EU member states but have never been to Moscow or other parts of Russia."

To be sure, the city of Kaliningrad -- which was the East Prussian capital of Koenigsburg until the German territory was ceded to the Soviet Union following World War II -- does not look Russian. The city offers a curious mix of prewar German architecture -- most of it in ruins -- and stark, uninspired Soviet design. The first Soviet apartment blocks were constructed only in 1966, and the city has only very recently begun to build Russian Orthodox churches.

For many Kaliningraders, the city's geographical isolation from Moscow -- and its long-time role as a restricted military zone and base of the Soviet Union's Baltic Fleet -- grants it special status, setting it apart from more typical Russian cities. Kirill Koktysh, of the Moscow Institute of International Relations, says in this way Kaliningrad is fertile ground for a kind of regional separatism.

In this way, he says, it is similar to other far-flung cities like Vladivostok in the Far East: "We have a similar picture in both regions. These regions think they are different, and these sentiments were fostered during the Soviet time. They feel that they are more important than other regions, because they are both kind of outposts [of the Russian state]. The military and naval presence also contribute in large part to this attitude. Both Vladivostok and Kaliningrad have military bases and there's an old prevailing belief that the center should compensate them for this exclusive role."

Marius Vahl, a political analyst with the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, says although many Kaliningraders are looking West, regional separatism has not yet become a true political issue in the exclave: "Many Kaliningraders, especially perhaps young people, seem to be more orientated towards the West than to Russia and Moscow. So I guess over time -- talking in terms of decades -- [separatism] may become an issue, but as of now it is not really high on the agenda."

But an official from Russia's Federation Council, who wished to remain anonymous, told RFE/RL that the growing antipathy of many young people in Kaliningrad is causing some anxiety in Moscow. As many in Kaliningrad seek to restore the country's German heritage -- with some residents even campaigning to restore the name Koenigsberg and many Western foundations pouring aid money into the region -- the official says the Kremlin is worried that Kaliningrad will find its ties to Russia less and less desirable.

Some marginal political parties are already trying to capitalize on this sentiment. Businessman Sergei Pasko, who heads Kaliningrad's Baltic Republican Party, says the region is "simply in a different geopolitical situation" and requires "different approaches." He says that while he does not advocate secession from Russia, he does believe the exclave should receive special rights -- such as a looser association with Russia and visa-free travel to the EU. He says it is important to push for these changes ahead of the Union's 2004 expansion: "With these circumstances in mind, we are saying that it would be better for our society to be an associative member of the Russian Federation or a subject where the residents have different rights than other Russian citizens."

While Pasko claims that more than a third of Kaliningrad residents support his party's platform, other officials dispute that Kaliningraders are seeking to distance themselves from Moscow. Aleksandr Karetskii heads the information committee of the Kaliningrad regional administration. He calls Pakso's ideas "funny" and says the Baltic Republican Party has few followers at best. Contrary to Pasko's claims, Karetskii says, patriotism is on the rise in Kaliningrad, where many residents are angered by the EU's insistence on imposing a visa regime for future travel to Russia through what will be Union territory. "The fact that the region has been torn from Russia means that what is likely to happen now is an increased feeling of affinity for Russia and a feeling of Russian patriotism -- pride that we are Russians and residents of Russia."

Karetskii says the Russian language, culture, and traditions all strongly prevail in the region. "Our young people are Russian. They consider themselves Russian," he says, adding, "They are simply taking advantage of the opportunity to travel abroad -- to Lithuania, to Poland, to Germany -- in the same way that young people in the United States and Europe like to travel."