The best for Kaliningrad

  • 2002-07-25
The future of Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, cut off from the motherland by European Union hopefuls Lithuania and Poland, must be ultimately decided by Moscow.

The question is really not one for Lithuania and Poland, countries with no authority over the wedge of Russian territory in their midst. Joining the EU entails playing by the union's rules, and Vilnius and Warsaw must comply with the policy set in Brussels.

And it's really no surprise that this policy requires visas for Kaliningrad residents who need to travel across EU territory to reach mainland Russia. Kaliningrad may once have been known for Emmanuel Kant and amber jewelry, but today, it is most closely associated with crime, smuggling and one of the highest HIV-infection rates in Europe.

In the end, Russian leaders will have to decide whether they want to continue wielding absolute power over Kaliningrad's political and economic future or whether they will allow the region greater autonomy and the freedom to integrate with a more prosperous Europe.

Kaliningraders themselves are increasingly aware of what is in their best interest. Years of visa-free travel with Lithuania and Poland have given residents a taste of a better life, while most of Kaliningrad business ventures have European, not Russian partners.

One independence-minded party, The Baltic Republican Party, even advocates a public referendum on breaking with Moscow.

A system of cheap, easy-to-get visas for the region's 1 million inhabitants – the position so far favored by Brussels and backed by Lithuania and Poland – and an increased orientation toward Europe would be in the best interests of all involved.

Hopefully, French President Jacques Chirac's abrupt about-face on that position – voiced during bilateral meetings with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, won't sabotage that sound policy.

It makes far more sense than most other scenarios, including selling the region to Germany – its pre-war landlord in its days as East Prussia.

Moscow's proposal of a transit corridor through Lithuania would inevitably carry with it a steady flow of crime and contraband, and a Lithuanian university professor's idea to dig a 70-kilometer long tunnel under Poland through which sealed electric trains would run seems far more degrading to Kaliningraders than a simple visa application.

Though Mr. Putin accuses the EU of "Cold War" thinking, it is the idea of sealed trains and transit corridors that we find eerily reminiscent of the bad old days.

If Russia clamps down on the region, forcing businesses and residents to cut off their ties with Europe, it will create a headache for itself and an island of instability adrift in Europe.

Kaliningrad could one day be a serious Russian success story, with dreams of the "Baltic Hong Kong" finally coming true. But it all depends now on the Kremlin's definition of success.