Where Is the “Pilot Region” Heading?
№4 2009 October/December

In the first part of this decade the problems of Russia’s
westernmost region occupied a major position on the agenda of
Russian-European talks, but gradually the topic moved into the
“long shot” category. An idea capable of laying the groundwork for
the Kaliningrad Region’s long-term development and facilitating the
maintenance of the Russian Federation’s territorial integrity has
not been identified to date. In spite of an array of multifarious
political statements and expert conclusions, no practical solutions
to the Kaliningrad problem in the format of Russia-EU relations
have been found.


The Kaliningrad Region can be called a “war child.” Eastern
Prussia with its capital Koenigsberg would not have had such a
knotty history if Germany had not lost World War II. After getting
hold of an ice-free Baltic seaport, the Soviet Union turned it into
a foothold for the Soviet Navy and fishing industry, which was the
backbone of the regional economy for many years. The agricultural
sector was added somewhat later. After the breakup of the Soviet
Union the region found itself in completely new and hitherto unseen
geopolitical conditions. The region had been torn away from the
“mainland” and remodeled into an exclave.

Such a possibility was considered at the highest political level
as far back as 20 years ago, but it was regarded as unrealistic
then. According to Yuri Semyonov, former chairman of the
Kaliningrad Region Council who now holds the post of deputy speaker
in the regional legislature, met with Mikhail Gorbachev and Soviet
Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov in 1990 and proposed creating a
99-kilometer-long transport corridor from the region to Grodno in
Belarus. The project included the construction of a major highway,
railway and communication lines. Ryzhkov supported the proposal,
but Gorbachev rejected it and told Semyonov not to panic. The idea
of the corridor was never discussed again.

The new Russian reality put forth a different set of demands to
the region’s economy than those it had faced previously. At first
the region got the regimentations of a free economic zone and then
of a special economic zone (SEZ). The region was gradually
transformed from a garrison closed to outside visitors into a big
“assembly workshop” where preference was given to
import-substituting production facilities. They became the
Kaliningrad Region’s calling card, but time showed that the model
was far from ideal. Moreover, it appeared quite vulnerable to the
cravings of the bureaucracy and the “mainland” lobbies. Russia’s
westernmost region still suffers from the so-called “dual
provincialism” – being in the periphery of both Russia and Europe,
although it is confident that it is Russia’s most profoundly
European territory.

Kaliningrad officials were not alone in contemplating the future
of the exclave. This was also a headache for Moscow and the EU. To
get an answer to this complicated question, one must understand
what Russia, Kaliningrad and the EU are seeking and how their
sometimes multidirectional interests could be matched.


One might think that Russia’s interest towards the Kaliningrad
exclave is all too obvious. It wants to preserve the region inside
the country and implement an economic model here that would prevent
the region from sliding back to the position of a “black hole” and
that would be advanced in the ideal. It looks like the promotion of
Russia’s interests at the inter-regional level in the EU (or in the
format of Euroregions) is not on the agenda. Back in the summer of
2001, the Russian Security Council, chaired by President Vladimir
Putin, reviewed the situation in the Kaliningrad Region and placed
the main emphasis on the economy. Political versions of untangling
the problem were discussed then as well (the appointment of a
special plenipotentiary representative for the region instead of a
governor or creating an eighth federal district specially for
Kaliningrad), but all of them were dismissed.

Eventually half-measures were chosen. In April 2001, the
position of a deputy Russian presidential envoy to the northwest of
Russia in charge of the Kaliningrad Region was established, and a
decision was made to rely on the economy. The regional authorities
were advised to work out a model of interaction between Russia and
Europe. It was admitted that the free economic zone was not
bringing strategic benefits, but only short-term economic effects,
while leaving the task of constructing a new economy unresolved. It
was planned that a special session of the Security Council would
work out The Guidelines of the Federal Policy towards the
Kaliningrad Region. However, no document of this kind has been
produced so far.

Instead, the exclave has been offered a series of surrogate
slogan names like a “pilot region” or a “transport hub.” They only
state the presence of a problem and do not offer any political
solutions. The special economic zone and The Federal Task Program
for the Development of the Kaliningrad Region (unlike other special
federal programs targeting one region or another, this one’s
budgetary funding was slashed due to the financial crisis, but was
not suspended altogether) make it possible only – figuratively
speaking – to “repair the coaches while the train is moving.” The
Kaliningrad Region’s special status is acknowledged in theory only,
and the absence of a fundamental program document does not give the
authorities an opportunity to raise its development to a new level.
Possibly, the genuine reason for this is that Moscow fears that
some regions (for instance, constituent regions located along the
border and some republics) may stage a “parade of sovereignties”
once the special status of the Kaliningrad exclave is confirmed by
a high-level document (for example, by a federal or constitutional
law). Russia has laws On the Special Economic Zone in the
Kaliningrad Region and The Federal Task Program for the Development
of the Kaliningrad Region, but the exclave does not receive the
support (financial or institutional) from the federal center that
it could count on. Various regulatory acts actually cross out the
special conditions of economic activity inherent in SEZ status, and
this has more than once aggravated the situation in the region
since the middle of the 1990s.

The Kaliningrad problem was topical at the federal level early
in this decade when the EU was getting ready to absorb Lithuania
and Poland in the course of another phase of its “enlargement”
(these countries envelope the exclave that does not have a land
border with the rest of Russia). The visa-free travel to Poland and
Lithuania that the residents of the region had enjoyed previously
was no longer possible after visa requirements were introduced. A
regulation for simplified visa formalities concerning free and
multiple-entry visas was introduced on several occasions, but
eventually it was shelved after both neighboring countries joined
the EU’s Schengen Agreement. Initially, the post of Russian
presidential envoy to Kaliningrad was held by Dmitry Rogozin
(currently Russia’s Ambassador to NATO), but later this function
went over to presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who chaired an
interdepartmental work group for the development of the Kaliningrad
Region that reported to the Kremlin. The Kaliningrad problem was
left hanging in midair when Yastrzhembsky left government. It has
been called for only on certain occasions, like when the idea was
voiced of deploying Iskander missiles in the exclave as a response
to the U.S. third missile deployment area in Eastern Europe.


The lack of a solid foundation that would determine the region’s
status makes the legislative regulation of life in the exclave
defective. Since guidelines for the federal policy towards the
Kaliningrad Region never appeared, they could be substituted with a
federal constitutional law on the Kaliningrad Region’s special
status. Some local experts recommend that the foundation be laid by
a special Russian-EU agreement on the Kaliningrad problem. However,
this option seems to be unlikely, since the two parties are still
at odds over a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (the sixth
round of talks on it was held at the beginning of October in
Brussels). In the meantime, a federal constitutional law (even
though its adoption is possible only if political will is shown at
the very top) could play the role of an “umbrella” for both the
federal law On the Special Economic Zone in the Kaliningrad Region
and The Federal Task Program for the Development of the Kaliningrad
Region, protecting them from attacks by all kinds of lobbyists.

It has happened many times that some novelty or another
conceived at the federal level caused big headaches for the
Kaliningrad exclave. One such instance over the past year was the
internal reform of the customs agencies. Or, take the new technical
regulations for firefighting precautions that took effect in May
2009. This document actually paralyzed the operations of
Kaliningrad furniture companies, as trucks carrying their products
got stuck on the border, bringing the manufacturers to the brink of
shutting down (note that the regional furniture-making industry,
which accounts for 8 percent of all furniture made in Russia, plays
a significant role in the exclave’s economy). As for the solution
to the problem of firefighting precautions, it had to be settled at
“fire sale” speed: the situation demanded the efforts of the
region’s top officials who proved to the federal center that the
technical regulations needed to be reconsidered as they did not
take account of Kaliningrad’s special conditions. It seems that the
regional authorities have the permanent job of proving the region’s

Regional experts see a way out of the situation in changing the
region’s status. Some of them promulgate ideas outside the
juridical field of the Russian Federation (for instance, one local
political party, now banned, wanted to declare the region a fourth
Baltic republic). Others demand that the exclave be granted the
status of an overseas territory similar to the French island of
Reunion or the British Channel Islands. Still others are mulling
over a greater presence of the federal authorities in the region
(for instance, giving the regional governor the status of a Russian
deputy prime minister and introducing an annual compensation of
around 10 billion rubles for the exclave’s isolated existence).

Kaliningrad Regional Governor Georgy Boos said in the fall of
2008 that he would ask Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to
institute a position in the presidential staff of an official with
the special duty of overseeing Kaliningrad affairs. He believed
this might help eliminate the bureaucratic conflict of interests. A
year has elapsed since then, but the absence of public statements
on the issue suggests that no decisions have been made.

Generally speaking, Kaliningrad pinned big hopes on Georgy Boos.
When he assumed the governorship of the territory in the fall of
2005 after resigning from his position as Vice Speaker of the State
Duma, many thought that a politician from the top federal level
would have enough power to end the Kaliningrad stalemate. The past
four years have shown that there is no movement in the
institutional sphere, although the region has begun to get a little
more finance from the center for large-scale projects – those which
are often not welcomed by local residents. But the decision on the
choice of the ideology for the exclave’s development has been
postponed – indefinitely it seems (this is not surprising since the
final word always rests with Moscow whatever the strength of the
regional resource).

Instead, the Kaliningrad Region has been offered an array of
mega-projects which are expected to improve the economic situation
there in the next few decades – if Russian-EU relations remain at
the current level or even if they worsen. The list of projects
includes: the construction of a nuclear power plant that would also
export energy, a gambling zone, an amber exchange, a cargo air
junction, an oil refinery, etc. The projects are based on the idea
of turning the region’s half-illicit economy into an economy of
steeply rising financial gain (even though pegged to a large-scale,
but solitary, project) through the optimization of internal
resources and reliance on major foreign investors. Alas, all the
ideas, which their initiators viewed as would-be locomotives for
the local economy, are far from being implemented, while some of
them have proven shallow. Meanwhile, life in the exclave is
becoming increasingly more expensive. The cost of energy, housing,
public utility services and foodstuffs, as well as inflation are
among Russia’s highest. The slogans suggesting that living
standards in the Kaliningrad Region must be comparable with those
in Lithuania and Poland remain only words.


One might get the impression that the EU has gradually withdrawn
from discussions about the exclave’s future (although no other
Russian region depends so heavily on what their neighbors do, for
example, in the sphere of travel visas or transit cargo). In the
meantime, the EU and Russia issued a joint statement in November
2002 where the EU pledged to render technical and financial
assistance to Russia’s efforts to support the exclave region’s
social and economic development. The commitment embraced, among
other things, improvements in border crossing procedures and border
infrastructures. Ideas budded then of creating a European fund for
Kaliningrad’s development with an annual budget of 40 million
euros, but they were abandoned. Likewise, no efforts have been
taken to harmonize regional and European legislation, although such
attempts were made previously. A proposal to launch a visa-free
high-speed rail link between Kaliningrad and Moscow has sunk into
oblivion. A special subcommittee for the region’s development,
which European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso proposed
setting up in the format of the Russia-EU Partnership and
Cooperation Agreement at one of the Russia-EU summits, is not
functioning at the level that was meant.

As a result, the EU’s presence in the region is confined to
administrating joint projects, like the construction of sewage
treatment facilities in the town of Gusev, and cultural events like
movie festivals. Thus it seems that a clear message is being sent:
the Kaliningrad exclave is Russia’s problem and not the EU’s.
However, the EU is not letting the westernmost Russian region get
out of the zone of its attention. For instance, Lithuania has taken
on the self-assigned duty of a solicitor for Kaliningrad, something
that Lithuanian diplomats have stated more than once. It is also
true, though, that the soliciting does not go beyond rhetoric, as
the problems of easing visa requirements and revising tariffs for
transit cargo are far from being resolved.


As a replacement for all of this, Kaliningrad residents are
again offered surrogates, like the mechanism of the so-called
limited cross-border travel, which means admitting the people
living within a zone of 30 to 50 kilometers along the state border
into a zone of the same depth in the neighboring country. All the
appeals on the part of the Russian Foreign Ministry to resolve
local visa problems more radically (for instance, to issue national
Lithuanian visas to all Kaliningrad residents, as this does not run
counter to Schengen legislation) have not found much support. The
same concerns the proposals of the Kaliningrad regional Duma to
introduce visa-free travel to the exclave for EU citizens on a
reciprocal basis.

The latter idea, however, has problems concerning its juridical
interpretation. On the one hand, the Russian Constitution provides
equal rights to all Russian citizens and makes all the constituent
territories equal as well, while the introduction of simplified
travel regulations for Kaliningrad residents only may put them at
an advantage compared to other Russians. On the other hand, the
exclave’s residents have for years been living in a more difficult
situation than other Russians. Their right to free travel has been
infringed on (Russian officials pointed this out to the European
Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, who visited the
region in the fall of 2008). No Russian citizen living in the
“mainland” has to cross the territory of a foreign country
(Lithuania, a member of the EU), obtain a passport for foreign
travel, get a travel visa or a “simplified travel document’ (the
issuance of which can be denied by the way) when making a trip from
his or her place of residence to Moscow. Moreover, in the past
Moscow was “probed” for the possible introduction of fees for the
“simplified travel documents” and for compounding their issuance
with requirements that could reduce the entire transit mechanism to

Incidentally, exceptions for the Kaliningrad Region in federal
legislation were already made before (for example, local residents
were exempt from fees for getting passports) and that is why there
seems to be no reasons that would prevent the government from doing
the same thing again. But unless we get a clear concept of the
region’s development we cannot get a clear answer to the question
of why we should open the border and put Kaliningrad at risk of
turning into a transit base for illegal migrants. The introduction
of a limited cross-border travel zone will hardly make us consider
the Kaliningrad visa problem settled de facto, although it will
provide grounds for claiming that the issue is resolved de jure,
thus setting the stage for complications in the future. Also, it
will make the lives of Polish and Lithuanian shuttle traders much


Kaliningrad’s offbeat challenges, which spread beyond the
region’s boundaries (and, incidentally, have not been identified or
estimated in full measure), testify to the importance of a
radically different approach to the situation. The exclave’s
problems are neither technical (as they are not confined to travel
visas or transit via EU territory), or economic (since they are
bigger than just questions of transit fees or the construction of
the Baltic nuclear power plant), or exclusively political. It also
has a socio-cultural meta-dimension.

The Kaliningrad Region was created by people who resettled from
different parts of the former Soviet Union and its population is
not autochthonous. Obviously, the people who moved there more than
half a century ago did not accept the Prussian-German legacy – the
half-destroyed Koenigsberg Castle was blown up and erased from the
face of the earth in the mid-1960s, while numerous architectural
monuments and churches still lie in ruins. The restoration of many
of them has just begun, as the Kaliningrad Region was opened to
foreign tourists in the early 1990s, which produced a surge of
nostalgic tours from Germany.

This fact adds a special “flavor” to the Kaliningrad problem.
The past few years have revealed a growing tendency among the
locals who regard themselves to be intellectuals – especially among
creative professionals – to demonstrate their solid knowledge of
the region’s pre-Soviet history as a matter of courtesy. There are
also people who use historical German geographic names in everyday
life (and they cannot be called solitary militant Germanophiles).
Does this mean that we are witnessing a qualitative break of the
exclave’s population from the rest of Russia? Or will Kaliningrad
residents produce a symbiotic Russo-European culture and create new
genius loci instead of the German one?

One way or another, it is clear today that immersion in the
historical and cultural heritage of one’s predecessors unites
contemporary residents of the region as much as the aversion
against all things German united their fathers and grandfathers.
This transformation of local consciousness has not passed unnoticed
by the former masters of the territory. Guido Herz, Germany’s
Consul General to Kaliningrad, said shortly before accepting a new
appointment that he fully realized that people had come there from
all parts of the former Soviet Union and they did not have a common
denominator other than the German past of that territory. Hence
their willingness to put their place of residence into an unusual
and more interesting light, as if it were something special, is
easy to understand, the diplomat said.


In this context, the presence of the Russian federal center
through numerous official institutions in the Kaliningrad exclave
and, on top of that, its committed and efficient attention to the
region’s problems is of critical significance. In the first
post-Soviet years, the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet served as
tangible proof of the interconnections between the region and
“mainland” Russia, but now this role is performed to a much greater
degree by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Intensive development and consolidation of the Orthodox
Christian faith in the Kaliningrad Region (which did not have any
Orthodox churches before the mid-1980s, a fact that compelled the
residents needing spiritual guidance to make trips to neighboring
Lithuania) and the long personal relationships of some hierarchs of
the Moscow Patriarchate (Patriarch Kirill, in the first place) with
the territory creates the sensation that there is a real Russian
presence in that remote place. Proof of the special significance
that the Russian presence has for the region could be seen in the
painful reaction from the local authorities a few years ago to the
demand of supervisory agencies that Russia’s national emblem be
removed from the Mayor’s Office in Kaliningrad and then from the
building of the Baltic Fleet’s Staff. It looks like the Russian
Church has a much greater awareness of the uniqueness of
Kaliningrad challenges than secular top-level agencies. One of the
testimonies to this can be found in Patriarch Kirill’s decision to
keep the diocese of Kaliningrad under his personal governance.
Along with this, one should not overlook the competition posed by
the Roman Catholic Church (especially in what concerns claims
remaining from the pre-Soviet era to church property). This
certainly makes the religious factor more acute.

Still, it is the secular authorities that will have to decide on
the ideology for developing the Kaliningrad Region. They will have
to devise it in the absence of a strategic vision of mutual
relations on the part of both Russia and the EU. This is not a
simple thing to do, especially as they are not making any headway
in relations. There have been numerous attempts over the past
twenty years, but all of them have ended up in half-measures.
Apparently, the past approaches aimed at “mending the holes” and
“whipping at others’ tails” (and this is what happened after
Lithuania and Poland’s accession to the Schengen zone) are not
working and that is why we must try to make a forecast for the
situation and see its prospects.

The Kaliningrad exclave’s problems are becoming more complicated
and there is a risk that they may grow from a small bundle of
contradictions into a big tangle of interstate controversies.