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Russia: Kaliningrad Takes A Downward Economic Turn

Warsaw, 5 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, once proclaimed by Moscow as a future Hong Kong, is in decline after a short period of economic growth, a Polish diplomat said.

Michal Zurawski, the former Polish consul to Kaliningrad, said things changed for the worse when a former hard-line communist Leonid Gorbienko became governor earlier this year.

He replaced Yuri Matochkin, who had attempted to win special status for Kaliningrad from Moscow to attract foreign capital and turn it into another Hong-Kong.

Political analysts say Russia toughened its stand on Kaliningrad when the decision was made to expand NATO. Moscow began to send signals that the military role of the province has to grow because Poland, which borders it, will become a NATO member. Lithuania, which also borders the province, has recently rejected Moscow's offer to extend its military security umbrella over the Baltic states, and reiterated its wish to join NATO too.

Zurawski said that Gorbienko spoke more about building tanks and closing the Polish-Russian border than about trade cooperation during a recent visit of a Polish Senate delegation to Kaliningrad,.

"Gorbienko made trade for small traders difficult," Zurawski said. "They are not cleared at the border but have to go to customs offices inside the province and wait for days for clearance."

But Leonid Drachevsky, the Russian ambassador to Warsaw, told RFL/RL in an exclusive interview two days ago that prosperity still lies ahead for the province.

"I hope it will be another Hong Kong," he said. "It will not be a military base only."

He said he traveled to the province and the did not see any obstruction of traffic for traders at the border.

Drachevsky blamed lack of a good telecommunication system and poor transport for the problems in trade contacts.

Kaliningrad, an area of only 15,000 sq km (9,000 sq miles), was saturated for years with tens of thousands of Russian troops. Their numbers recently decreased but their presence is still visible. The port of Baltijsk still remains a closed military zone.

Zurawski, who left his job in June, said Russian sources referred to some 40,000 troops in the province while the Polish sources speak of about 100,000.

In comparison with Moscow, where he served as consul for four years, Zurawski said the city of Kaliningrad remains as gray and gloomy as it was in the past.

The slowing down of trade is a concern for the northern Polish provinces. One trader who is supplying several shops in Kaliningrad with soft drinks said a 60-mile trip from Poland "often becomes a nightmare" due to problems with delayed customs clearance by Russians.

There are more than 250 Polish joint venture companies registered in the province but only 100 are operating. The general opinion is that more foreign capital would be attracted if foreigners were allowed to purchase land.