Is Kaliningrad Taking Its First Steps Toward the EU?

Kaliningrad may have been the German city of Koenigsberg until the end of World War II, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union, but little remains to testify to that heritage amid a sea of concrete buildings that are the trademark of a typical Soviet city. (Photo: Stringer / AFP-Getty Images)

Kaliningrad was the capital of Eastern Prussia, having the German name of Koenigsberg. It was the birthplace of Immanuel Kant. In 1946, it became part of the Soviet Union, and the base of the Russian Baltic fleet. Since the European Union accession, Kaliningrad finds itself isolated, in the middle of Poland and Lithuania.

Kaliningrad, the Crisis

Kaliningrad experienced a certain feeling of abandonment after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when it entered a phase of political, economic and social crisis, mainly due to its separation from "Mother Russia."

In a region where 90 percent of the world's reserve of amber can be found, agriculture was the principle activity and the average per capita income, until a few years ago, was approximately $100 a month. The decline that has taken place over the past 15 years is evident: an extremely high unemployment rate and one of the highest H.I.V./AIDS infection rates in Europe confirm the lack of Moscow's presence in the enclave.

Towards the end of 2005, the mayor of Kaliningrad, Yuri Savenko, declared, "A symbol of the victory of the Soviet people in the great patriotic war will appear in the renovated Pobeda Square," referring to a statue of Lenin.

Nevertheless, during a press conference in 2004, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had to point out Kaliningrad on a map in order to show journalists where exactly it was located.

A European Outlook?

The discussions about the Kaliningrad enclave do not only concern the transit issue. The EU has offered, and continues to offer, support to the enclave. "We contribute to the development of this particular region, and we will continue our active cooperation." The European commissioner for external relations and European neighborhood policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner used these words after a visit to Kaliningrad on Feb. 28, 2006, and thus confirmed the EU's determination not to close the enclave off after the 2004 enlargement, and its will to promote economic and social convergence between Kaliningrad and its neighboring states.

The EU-Russia summit of Nov. 11, 2002, laid down the rules for the transit of Russian citizens between Kaliningrad and other Russian territories, these rules being implemented on July 1, 2003, with positive results. The volume of transit goods rose considerably both in 2004 and 2005, by 10 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

The EU directed more than 100 million euros to Kaliningrad between 2001 and 2006, mainly in technical assistance, finance, and trans-border transit, within the scope of the Special Program for Kaliningrad, part of the Neighbors Program. From 2001, Kaliningrad has grown faster than the Russian average.

What Path Should Kaliningrad Take?

Map of Western Russia. Kaliningrad is between Poland and Lithuania. (Source: C.I.A. World Factbook)

With economic growth, for the most part thanks to European action, and bordering only on EU member states, what is Kaliningrad's next step?

Besides experiencing political and economic difficulties, Kaliningrad is also undergoing a profound identity crisis.

"We are unlike any other Baltic state. They have their own language and culture … We will always be part of Russia," said Olga Danilova, a teacher and guide in Kaliningrad, to the BBC in 2003.

However, many people, especially the young, have voiced the opinion that Kaliningrad is becoming closer to Europe. Svetlana Kolbanyova, a young TV reporter believes, "Kaliningrad dreams of being European.

"It's a kind of mix. We're Russian because we speak Russian and our culture is Russian, but in view of our ties to Europe, we kind of feel European."

In fact, only 15 percent of young people in Kaliningrad have visited Russia, whereas 80 percent have visited Europe.

While the EU's official position remains to assist Kaliningrad without interfering with Russian sovereignty, its economic and political influence is increasing. Gerhard Schröder, the German ex-chancellor, recently asserted – obviously negating any kind of territorial claim – that "in his heart, this city will always be called Koenigsberg."

The EU entered with superiority onto the political scenes of various Eastern European states, and ex-Russian republics such as Ukraine and Belorussia. Could something similar happen with Kaliningrad, thus leading to unpredictable consequences?

What we can see today is a significant European economic force, a good level of cooperation between Russia and the EU, and a growing European economic and cultural influence on the region. Last but not least, a people tired of feeling abandoned by Moscow, wanting to improve standards of living and ever more convinced that the future could lie in Europe, just over the border.