Kaliningrad: Russia's Own Breakaway Region?

Moscow's Baltic exclave is drifting closer and closer to Europe. Given a vote like Crimea's, would they leave?

Since the Russian government claims that the residents of Crimea have the legal justification to bolt from Ukraine, can we assume that the residents of Kaliningrad have the same right to join the EU?

Indeed, while both Western and Russian authorities acknowledge that Ukraine is a sovereign country, the legal status of Kaliningrad—Russia’s westernmost oblast, surrounded by Poland and Lithuania and once belonging to Germany’s East Prussia—remains a subject of dispute. The Soviet Union, Russia’s predecessor, occupied it after the Second World War, and today it is home to almost one million people.

In the final days of the Clinton administration, Strobe Talbott addressed a gathering of Baltic-American activists celebrating the second year of the U.S. Baltic Charter. It would facilitate the Baltic democracies 2002 accession to NATO. At one point, Clinton’s “Russian hand” cited the importance of Kaliningrad in U.S.-Russian relations so I asked, “If that is true, why has our government not acknowledged Moscow’s de jure possession of Russia’s western-most Oblast?” He said we had but then turned to Ron Asmus, his “NATO expert,” who observed that we had acknowledged Russia’s de facto but not its de jure possession of Kaliningrad. The U.S. was not challenging Russia’s ownership of the region because its legal status did not matter to Washington.

Talbott’s response was stunning since he was truly one of the best-informed “Russian Watchers” in Washington. For decades he had written widely and wisely about Soviet/Russian affairs. But he was not alone in displaying ignorance about Kaliningrad’s legal status. In conducting research for a book, The Kaliningrad Question, I discovered that few people in official Washington knew the real story. I also learned that the Oblast was depicted as a military zone with a huge inventory of Russian troops and sailors. In truth U.S. government estimates of Russian military assets in the region were appreciably far smaller in number. When I visited Kaliningrad in 1998, the Russian military was in desperate shape: its equipment was in terrible condition and its troops and their dependents lived in squalor.

Officials in Moscow and Kaliningrad told me that the Oblast was unequivocally part of Russia although they were disturbed that Western commentators referred to the remote exclave as “a problem.” Answers regarding public attitudes about “autonomy,” “breaking with Moscow,” and “joining a neighboring country” were inconclusive because they rested on unreliable and conflicting polling data. Outspoken inhabitants of the Oblast and foreigners working there, however, indicated many residents were unhappy with Moscow. Since my visit, they have clashed with the Kremlin on a range of matters resulting in several mass demonstrations of considerable size:

· They reacted with anger when Putin denied them the opportunity provided by Boris Yeltsin to elect their Governor and gave the Kremlin that privilege.

· Business people complained that in conducting their affairs, the highly touted Economic Free Zone was often a hindrance and not an asset. For example, Moscow constantly revised the list of designated “tax free” commodities so that it was impossible to develop a long-term business plan.

· Like the Russian oligarchs, many-middle class residents have a plan B/exit plan should circumstances turn against them, and toward that end they have purchased property abroad and secured foreign travel documents—preferably multi-use Schengen passports.

· Older residents are less inclined to talk about “joining Europe,” but a growing number of young people think of themselves as “Europeans.”

· When a classroom of first graders were asked by their teacher to name a Russian city other than Kaliningrad, they responded: Berlin, Warsaw and Vilnius.

· If allowed to vote in favor of joining Europe—without fear of retribution—it is plausible that most residents of the Oblast would vote to bolt from Russia; clearly this would be the preference of younger people.

Washington has never revised its legal position nor have neighboring countries that have a substantial interest in the area—Germany, Lithuania and Poland. All of their governments know that were they to do so, Moscow would deem it a major provocation. Instead, they and the EU have advocated Kaliningrad serve as a bridge and not a barrier to better relations with Moscow. Russian officials, however, have not responded to that enterprise with enthusiasm.

Today Western leaders have urged President Putin to acknowledge that to wrest control of Crimea from Ukraine, would be as provocative as the West’s doing the same thing through a referendum in Kaliningrad. After all, it is a dangerous and reckless move and as each day goes by only a miracle will prevent someone from losing their composure and resorting to a fire-fight with their counterparts in the other camp—maybe members of the Russian and Ukrainian “defense forces” or even regular soldiers.

It is also of note that in recent years, Russia’s military assets in Kaliningrad have been upgraded and on several occasions Kremlin officials have threatened to deploy nuclear weapons to countervail NATO’s penetration of former Soviet space. What’s more, Russian troops have conducted war games around the three Baltic democracies, Putin has threatened to scrap the 1987 treaty proscribing intermediate-ranged missiles that are of special concern to our European allies, and he has accused Lithuania of training the protestors that brought down the Yanukovych government.

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