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27th Jun 2022

Kaliningrad enclave to pilot EU-Russia integration, Moscow says

  • Kaliningrad main square: Russia says it will make the region more like EU (Photo: EUobserver)

With Brussels drafting a new trade pact with Moscow and with the Finnish presidency prioritising Russian relations, Russia says that its EU enclave - the Kaliningrad oblast - could become a pilot project for EU integration in the next few years.

"Without doubt, the Kaliningrad region is a place that can start the process of integration with European countries more quickly. It's a region that can generate momentum for cooperation between Russia and the EU," Kaliningrad governor Georgy Boos told EUobserver on 29 June.

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"There cannot be a possibility of European development if a part of central Europe is old, impoverished or in a bad condition," he added. "We need a politics of openness and integration with our neighbouring countries and the other EU member states."

Parachuted in from Moscow last September, Mr Boos has started attracting Russian and European capital to Kaliningrad. From 1 April, new investors get a six year tax holiday on profits. In the past month, he scalped two officials on corruption charges to build trust in the system.

"You want to hear my other projects? Do you have two days?" the governor quipped, adding that the EU must also do its bit to help Russian people and goods enter the common market. "The question of inter-border cooperation still exists," he said.

Russia recently persuaded the Finnish EU presidency to create a group of experts on "best practice" on the Russia-Finland border to improve conditions on the Kaliningrad-Poland frontier, despite Warsaw telling Helsinki that border delay problems lie on the Russian side.

But the Lithuania border reportedly works well, with cargo flowing smoothly and with no complaints on the 2004 "facilitated travel document" system for Russian transit passengers. The opening in February of a new Swedish consulate will ease access to Nordic states.

Local industrialists such as Russian animal-feed producer Alexander Lutsenko and Croatian chicken-processor Stefano Vlahovic share Mr Boos' vision. "This will be a European town. A Russian town with a European face," Mr Lutsenko said.

"This will be a children's paddling pool for the EU and Russia, Russia-lite if you like," Mr Vlahovic remarked. Both men are investing $200 million each in new plants, while the Hotel Kaliningrad sees a steady trickle of Danish and UK businessmen on exploratory trips.

Mutual mistrust

But at the political level, mistrust remains. Warsaw says Moscow uses its 40,000 to 100,000 man-strong military base in Kaliningrad to scour northern Poland for evidence of secret CIA camps, while blocking shipping access to its port in Frombork.

Some EU diplomats believe the Kaliningrad issue is more complex than Russia likes to admit. On one hand, if Poland and Lithuania use EU funds to outrace the region in development terms, it could become an instable economic ghetto.

On the other hand, if it integrates with the EU too quickly, the region could start calling for new political freedoms or give ammunition to reform movements in Moscow. New EU civil society schemes could spotlight Kaliningrad's HIV and tuberculosis problems, they say.

"If Kaliningrad races ahead of Russia economically and politically this could embarrass the Kremlin at home. People might ask - if there, why not here?" one EU official indicated. "Maintaining the status quo could be politically more comfortable for Moscow."

Certainly, Mr Boos does not look like the kind of man to tolerate unwanted political change. The 43-year old millionaire and reported KGB officer is a loyal member of Vladimir Putin's "United Russia" party and sees any potential drift toward autonomy in tragic terms.

"The better quality of life that people have, the less they want cataclysms or a political crisis," he said. "It's an axiom of Marx: poverty is the cause of instability. The cause of stability is wealth."

Half-speed ahead on EU integration

Kaliningrad autonomy is discussed less today than in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union was falling apart. Shipped in by Stalin after he took the region from Hitler in 1945, 80 percent of the 1 million Kaliningradians are and feel Russian.

The place looks like mainland Russia: the skyline is dominated by concrete tower blocks; bad roads are busy with old European cars; young people pose and drink beer; old women sell potatoes. People live on €200 a month and get the rest on the black.

But the region's identity seems more fragile than elsewhere. There is a sense of cultural dislocation. The history that local people celebrate - the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the German medieval cathedral - is not theirs.

And in subtle ways, Russia takes pains to manage the ideological climate. Surrounded by Central European Time, Kaliningrad is one hour ahead. The Russian airport terminal dwarfs the primitive international terminal.

A new Russian visa reform might make it harder to get into the EU: rather than sending papers to Moscow, Kaliningradians might in future send papers to local authorities who would pass them to Moscow who would pass them to one designated border crossing point only.

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