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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Fourth Baltic Republic?

Washington, 20 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A proposal by a senior Moscow politician to transform Russia's Kaliningrad oblast into an autonomous Russian Baltic Republic could reorder the geopolitics of the Baltic region. Even more, it could transform the constitutional order of the entire Russian Federation itself.

The proposal came on Friday in "Izvestiya." Vladimir Shumeiko, a former Russian deputy prime minister and the chairman of the Russian Federation Council, said in the Moscow daily that he favors upgrading the Kaliningrad region into an autonomous republic, lest that non-contiguous part of the Russian state suffer a social explosion or become "a protectorate of a neighboring country or even an area managed by the Council of Europe."

Shumeiko made the suggestion in response to a Russian government plan to reduce economic subsidies to this non-contiguous part of the federation.

If adopted, his proposal almost certainly would power a new movement in Kaliningrad for the creation of a fourth Baltic republic, as well as demands by other Russian regions for preferential treatment.

But even if this proposal is not adopted -- and the immediate chances for passage seem small -- this suggestion will almost inevitably exacerbate tensions both in the Baltic sea region and in Russia as well.

Around the Baltic region, it will raise questions about Moscow's intentions. And around the Russian Federation, it will reopen the question about what Moscow will accept as far as relations between the regions and the center are concerned.

Consequently, even if this proposal is not realized, it represents a major political watershed.

According to Shumeiko -- who once ran for governor of Kaliningrad -- that region "is paying what it has to." More than that, he said, the current arrangements only "provide compensation" for the region's remoteness from the center. They do nothing to provide genuine "benefits."

And consequently, if these subsidies are ended, Shumeiko argued, some "45,000 small entrepreneurs and their families will lose their businesses and incomes." Prices for food will double, the number of unemployed will rise to 75,000, and trade will collapse. And "investors will say good-bye, never to return."

According to Shumeiko, such a series of developments will create at least a social explosion or even more dangerously the collapse of all public authority there. And in that environment, some Kaliningraders will seek to become an independent protectorate or even an independent entity protected by the Council of Europe.

At one level, of course, such a scenario is part and parcel of a political argument to get other Russian politicians to rethink plans to drop assistance to this region.

But at another level, Shumeiko's proposal reflects a fundamental if seldom commented upon political reality. Ever since the Soviet government seized Koenigsberg from Germany at the end of World War II and renamed it Kaliningrad, the region has been a serious potential problem for Moscow and the Russian Federation of which it was made a part.

Prior to the recovery of independence by Lithuania and the collapse of the USSR, Soviet authorities were largely able to manage the situation because they could ignore republic boundaries and simply treat this area as an outpost of military power on the Baltic sea even as they replaced the largely German population with Russians and Ukrainians.

But after 1991, the situation changed. Kaliningrad was isolated from Russia by an independent Lithuania and Poland. The Soviet navy was in disarray. And the ecological and economic catastrophes that Soviet forces had left behind led many Kaliningraders to think that perhaps they should become the fourth Baltic republic.

Western opposition to any "secession from secession" as well as Russian Federation concerns about the need to maintain some military outpost in the Baltic region, following troop withdrawal from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania effectively killed that movement. But neither of these attitudes ended Moscow's problems there.

Moscow quickly proved incapable of taking care of the region's population. And neighboring countries including Germany, Poland and Lithuania all sought to increase their influence and leverage in a region each had claimed at some point in history.

Despite this outside investment and attention, conditions in Kaliningrad have continued to deteriorate.

An end to Russian subsidies will do nothing to slow this process. And that decline in turn, particularly given Shumeiko's proposal, will reopen the question about the future of Kaliningrad and the status of its people.