9 September 2002

Kaliningrad: Behind the Blue Curtain

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s actually half the size of Belgium, but the countries get bigger as you go east across Europe so it looks very small on the map. Legally, it’s just another region of Russia — the home region of President Vladimir Putin’s wife Lyudmila, in fact — but several hundred miles (kilometres) of foreign territory lie between it and the rest of Russia. It has no economic or strategic importance, and yet, as Putin said after the last Russia-European Union summit in May, “our overall relations with the EU depend on how this issue of vital importance to Russia is solved.”

The territory is Kaliningrad on the eastern shores of the Baltic, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. Koenigsburg, as its main city used to be known, was a medieval jewel founded by the Teutonic Knights in 1255, but by the time the Royal Air Force and the Red Army finished with the city in 1944-45 there was little left of value or of beauty. At the end of the Second World War, as part of the carve-up of German territories in the east agreed by the Allied leaders at Potsdam in 1944, it was handed over to Stalin, who promptly renamed it Kaliningrad after one of his cronies.

The million Germans who used to live there having all been killed or deported, a million Russians were shipped in instead, and for the next forty years the city became a Soviet military centre closed to all foreigners. It was rebuilt, after a fashion, but its one-horse economy, wholly dependent on Soviet military spending, went into a steep decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Thirty percent of the population now lives below the poverty line, and nobody really cares about the place — yet it is destabilising one of the most important relationships on earth.

The problem is that when Moscow annexed the territory in 1945, it did not attach it to Lithuania, the only Soviet republic that actually bordered on it. Instead, it made Kaliningrad part of Russia proper, far to the east. The Soviet Union was always the Russian empire in disguise, and the Kremlin saw it as a symbolic reward for Russian sacrifices in the war.

This made little practical difference so long as the Soviet Union remained intact and you could move freely between the member republics. It didn’t matter all that much even after 1991, when all the non-Russian republics got their independence. Russians travelling between Kaliningrad and the rest of the country now had to cross foreign territory, but nobody put obstacles in their way. However, now that Poland and Lithuania, the only two countries with land borders with Kaliningrad, are both joining the European Union, it matters a lot, for the EU is a bit obsessive about its borders.

There’s a reason for that. The Schengen agreement allows free travel between most EU member states without any formalities, but the corollary is that the EU’s external borders with the rest of the world must be guarded with great care. So if Poland and Lithuania want to become EU members in 2004, then they have to control all these Russians moving between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia. In fact, Brussels is demanding that Russians get a visa every time they cross the EU territory that will soon separate Kaliningrad from the rest of Russia.

The Russians, understandably, are furious at this change in the rules, and have begun to talk about a ‘blue curtain’ descending across Europe (the EU’s flag is blue). Nevertheless, Putin’s government is trying to find a way out of the confrontation, since it hopes one day to join the EU itself, so last week it suggested that special sealed trains and buses should run between Kaliningrad and Russia proper. The passengers would undergo stringent security checks, but would not require visas. Unfortunately, Brussels didn’t budge.

The only concession the EU seems willing to offer is a verbal fudge whereby the visas would be called ‘passes’ — but they would still be issued (or withheld) by an EU bureaucrat. No wonder President Putin’s special envoy on Kaliningrad, Dmitri Rogozin, lost his temper last week, saying that “a transit agreement was struck for West Berlin in 1971, at a time when the Cold War was raging….It was possible then, so why not now for Kaliningrad, now that the Cold War is over?”

Why not, indeed? The EU’s concern about what will be its new border in Eastern Europe in 2004 is leading it to create a high barrier on frontiers across which movement has been almost free for the past decade. That cannot be helped, but there is no reason to be insulting as well. What the EU really needs is to prevent leakage into its own territory from the traffic between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia. The formality of visas is only a means to that end.

The Russian proposal for sealed trains and buses travelling across EU territory along designated routes is an almost exact mirror image of the three corridors through Communist East Germany that connected West Berlin with West Germany during the Cold War, and it would give the EU the security it needs without humiliating the Russians. If the ponderous bureaucracy in Brussels cannot bend that far, it will play into the hands of the still-powerful forces in Russia that oppose Putin’s westward course, and undermine the long-term prospect of a genuinely united Europe. That would be remarkably stupid.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 8 and 9. (“The million…earth”; and “The only…end”)