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EU: Kaliningrad's Future Unresolved

When the EU expands to include Poland and the Baltics, it will surround one small piece of Russia. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports that analysts and EU experts are already grappling with the problem of what to do about Kaliningrad.

Brussels. 3 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, once a favored Soviet bridgehead, has spent most of the 1990s in quiet, decaying isolation. Although home to nearly 1 million inhabitants, it has been largely ignored by both Moscow and the European Union.

When the EU admits Poland and the three Baltic states, the presence of a Russian island in the union will be a unique problem. "The Kaliningrad Puzzle," a report commissioned by the Finland-based think-tank Aland Islands Peace Institute, looks at how the EU should treat the Russian exclave.

Pertti Joenniemi of the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute presented the report in Brussels last weekend (March 29). Joenniemi tells RFE/RL that Kaliningrad's relative isolation in recent years means its problems are not easy to resolve.

"Well, it [Kaliningrad] is very rich in problems, it's currently a degenerating region. Seen from a European Union perspective, one of the major problems is that there is no firm political leadership to lead Kaliningrad out of its crisis. There is a clash between the [local] government and the Duma opposition and that seems to stop all kind of progress."

Kaliningrad's problems are manifold. Joenniemi lists corruption, smuggling, and drug trafficking as endemic in Kaliningrad, and the exclave has seen an explosive spread of AIDS.

This, according to the report, is largely the result of years of neglect by the federal government in Moscow. In 1991, a Free Economic Zone was established in Kaliningrad, but the region's poor starting position and uncompetitive economy left it increasingly dependent on imports. Kaliningrad's first post-Soviet governor, Yuri Matochkin, did try to promote economic reform and open Kaliningrad to other countries in the region, but failed.

The current governor, Leonid Gorbenko, has favored a largely isolationist course and has made no steps to initiate much needed structural reforms. Foreign direct investment in Kaliningrad, while higher than in Russia as a whole ($70 annually per capita in Kaliningrad compared with $63 in Russia) is still much lower than in the neighboring Baltic states ($563 per capita in Lithuania in 1999).

Joenniemi says the EU has so considered Kaliningrad as external to the union. Poland and Lithuania have responded to EU requirements for candidate countries by tightening their visa and trading policies toward the Russian exclave.

But the report warns that EU policies of isolation and indifference risk leaving Kaliningrad an economic backwater and a source of instability. Joenniemi says that to avoid this, the EU needs to develop a long-term strategy for Kaliningrad.

"My proposal is that Kaliningrad [should be] provided with both a long-term and a short-term perspective. That it will in the long run approach the European Union, maybe even reach EU membership of some sort. I don't mean Russia as a whole, but Kaliningrad separately."

In the short term, the report says, the EU will need to find ways of providing Kaliningrad with development aid beyond the fairly limited ambit of TACIS, the aid program aimed at Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Border policy must be amended to allow Kaliningraders to travel more easily both to east and west.

The idea that Kaliningrad could one day have a closer relationship to the EU than does the rest of Russia is gaining ground beyond academic circles. Last year, during its presidency of the EU, Finland promoted more positive engagement of Kaliningrad. Sweden has promised to do the same during its presidency next year, and perhaps even go further. Last week, Swedish Trade Minister Leif Pagrotsky raised the issue of eventual EU membership for Kaliningrad in an article published in a leading Swedish daily.

And finally, Russia itself seems not too averse to allowing greater cooperation between Kaliningrad and the EU. A 1999 official strategy paper for the development of relations with the EU says that while Kaliningrad must be recognized as part of Russia, it could also become a "pilot region" for Euro-Russian cooperation in the 21st century.