IN the recent media focus on Russia's many difficulties, little has been said about a potential time bomb - Kaliningrad. A major problem exists with this small, overwhelmingly Russian ethnic enclave located between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic coast. That problem is bound to grow, and it could explode.
Moscow's ``near abroad'' policy will be tested in Kaliningrad. The region and its capital Konigsberg, formerly the northern third of East Prussia, was occupied by the Red Army in 1945. Though it became a province of Russia in 1946, Kaliningrad's territory is separated from that country by two independent states.
At present, virtually all of Kaliningrad's overland communications go through Lithuania. Shipping by sea from St. Petersburg can be problematic in the winter.
The reason the issue of Kaliningrad is ignored is political. As in the case of the four insignificant Kurile Islands that continue to sour Russo-Japanese relations, discussion of the Kaliningrad issue may aggravate the already unstable political climate in Russia. Kaliningrad could easily fuel the nationalist and fascist moods among a significant portion of the Russian population.
Several underlying questions on the legal status of the region, however, cannot be forever ignored. In view of the consensus in the world community against border changes, no neighbor has yet openly questioned Kaliningrad's status as a province of the Russian Federation. But such questions lurk just below the surface.
The exact status of the enclave in terms of international law is murky. The Potsdam Agreements of 1945 include the territory in a Soviet zone of occupation in Germany, and there is a statement of intent by the Allies to support Kaliningrad's eventual incorporation into the USSR during a peace conference.
That conference was never held. In 1946, the Soviet Union turned the region over to the Russian Federation and renamed the city of Konigsberg ``Kaliningrad,'' after the then figurehead president of the USSR, Mikhail Kalinin. It now remains the last place in the erstwhile empire that has not shed itself of such Stalinist nomenclature.
The territory is today probably the most militarized entity on the globe. The Soviets transformed the area into an armed camp during the cold war. Along with adjoining Lithuania, the region was built into one of the principal reserve areas in the event of a battle in Germany. For decades, a large percentage of its population consisted of military transients - troops, dependents of military personnel, or employees of enterprises in the Soviet military-industrial complex.
Lately, its high military concentration has been swelled by absorption of very large numbers of troops withdrawn from Germany, Poland, and Lithuania. Exact figures are unavailable but likely exceed 300,000. The total population of the province is estimated to be between 900,000 and 1 million. A significant proportion, perhaps 200,000, are military pensioners and their families. However, even a half-century later, the still heavily ruined and decrepit region remains underpopulated in comparison with prewar times.
The new international situation, which replaced the former East-West confrontation, has made this isolated concentration of Russian military on the flank of NATO seem anachronistic. Yet the possibility of withdrawing significant numbers of these troops to Russia proper is unrealistic in view of Russia's limited logistical capacity.
Such a massive military and naval establishment is perceived as a threat throughout the region. The creation of any system of security in Europe cannot ignore the question of what should or can be done about this bloated garrison.
The practical conditions under which most of the troops have to exist in the region present special problems and threats to security. The crumbling Nazi Wehrmacht barracks cannot adequately house the increased numbers of military personnel. Conditions, especially for newly transferred units, are appalling. Even simple interruptions in supplies could trigger disturbances. It is not inconceivable that ill-fed, highly armed bands of Russian troops could begin to forage in neighboring countries for no reason beyond survival. It is not surprising that both of Kaliningrad's immediate neighbors by land - Lithuania and Poland - have requested membership in NATO.
Futhermore, the legacy of the dysfunctional Soviet economy is acute here. Kaliningrad's productive potential was geared in an unusually high degree to the Soviet military-industrial complex. While this problem affects virtually all parts of the former USSR, it is overwhelming in Kaliningrad. Such a condition significantly complicates privatization and the introduction of a market economy.
Russian leadership in the region has come out on more than one occasion for some sort of special status, be it a free-trade zone or an autonomous region independent of Moscow, that would be able to enter into commercial and political arrangements with its neighbors. Some efforts in this direction are under way. But they may not be enough.
Were the potential disarray in Moscow to lead to a fragmentation of Russia (not an impossible scenario), independence would, by virtue of its situation, devolve on Kaliningrad. A tiny state dominated by a giant hungry garrison would then emerge as the latest European nation. Is the world prepared for this possibility? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.