Will tensions with West shutter Russia's 'window on Europe'?

The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, tucked between Poland and Lithuania, is proving a bellwether for the growing fortress mentality in Russia as relations with NATO cool.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
A general view of the Kant Island is pictured in the Baltic Sea port of Kaliningrad, Russia, on Saturday.

For most Russians, traveling between their homeland and the European Union is a long and tedious process. Not so for Andrei Kizersky.

Mr. Kizersky, a driver, travels to neighboring Poland about twice a month, sometimes with his whole family, thanks to a unique pilot project that grants virtually free entry for the approximately 1 million inhabitants of Russia's tiny Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. It's more than 300 miles away from the nearest city in "mainland" Russia, across solidly EU and NATO-held territory.

The project is considered a success, and there is no talk of canceling it despite fast-deteriorating relations between Moscow and Europe. But it has nevertheless intensified a debate among Kaliningrad's enclave-dwellers. Is their proximity to the West a boon that can help mediate European ideas into the broader Russian mainstream? Or does Moscow's dominant conservatism and military designation of the region as a "forward operating base" doom them to remain a tiny island of Russianness amid a rapidly modernizing European sea?

The answer to that could very well depend on Kaliningraders' personal experiences with their neighbors, a relationship unique among Russians and potentially crucial to overcoming the disconnect between Moscow and the West. 

"Our region's mission should be to introduce Europe to Russia, to be a bridge between the two," says Solomon Ginzberg, a liberal opposition deputy of the regional legislature. "And the influence of Europe is strong here, we do have some separate identity [from Russia]."

As evidence, Mr. Ginzberg cites the fact that more than 60 percent of Kaliningraders hold foreign passports, compared to an average 30 percent for all of Russia, and there is a growing popularity of learning foreign languages among the region's youths. As a practical example, he claims that the standard Western idea of pedestrian crosswalks was first introduced successfully in Kaliningrad more than a decade ago. He notes that it has been implemented much later, and with less success so far, in other parts of Russia.

On the other, he laments that most people here remain stubbornly resistant to serious change. "About 90 percent of the population here feel completely Russian and cannot imagine themselves separate from Russia, even though they do live physically apart. People watch Russian TV, and are deeply influenced by all this propaganda," especially during the current East-West crisis, he says.

But Alexei Milovanov, head of New Kaliningrad, the region's only independent news agency, notes that Kaliningraders' familiarity with their neighbors defangs the Kremlin line, by providing the sort of real-world experience of Europe that most Russians don't have.

"Some of the ugly things our TV broadcasts [from Moscow] says about Europeans just do not go down here," he says. "That's because we have much more opportunity to visit the EU. People go, relate to Europeans, see they are people much like us. So, we do share the geopolitical views of the majority of Russians, but we do not share these phobias."

Visa-free travel

Over the past decade Poland and Kaliningrad's neighbor to the north, Lithuania, have joined the EU and NATO and undergone thorough economic transformations; they've evolved toward European standards and ways in a multitude of less tangible ways as well.

Kaliningrad has changed a bit, too, but remains very much a heavily militarized, provincial, and economically challenged Russian region. About 5 million border crossings were reported last year, mostly Kaliningraders heading to the Polish cities like Gdansk which are within the 200 km (124 mile) depth they are permitted under the visa-free plan, and many of them report that the differences are dizzying.

"You really feel like you've gone abroad, even though it's just an hour or so away," says Kizersky. "The fields are orderly, the towns are clean and the roads are excellent. One gets the impression that the Poles must be workaholics. We could really learn from them."

Yet he admits, like most others, that he mostly just goes over there to shop. In the past year, he's bought most of the food and clothing his family uses, and even some furniture, in Poland. Even with the recent devaluation of the Russian ruble, prices are about 30 percent cheaper, he says.

Poles, taking advantage of the same visa-free rule, mostly just cross the border to fill up their tanks, since gasoline on the Russian side is also about a third cheaper.

Kaliningrad and 'Europe'

"In the center of Kaliningrad city there is a huge shopping mall called 'Europe.' And that is very symbolic, because that is just how we view Europe, as a place to buy stuff," says Mr. Milovanov of New Kaliningrad. "In this respect we are not a European region at all."

"Europe is about much more than cheap consumer goods, it's about living together in a certain way," Milovanov says. "It seems that we are not able to understand these values, to bring them home with us, even though we visit Europe constantly."

Kaliningrad's top-down and heavily stage-managed political system mirrors that in "mainland" Russia. Despite a long-running experiment with a regional "special economic zone," Kaliningrad has not attracted enough foreign investment to turn around its sluggish economy. Some foreigners are fleeing amid the crisis, while many of the benefits under the economic regime are set to expire next year.

Polls show that support for Russian policies such as the annexation of Crimea and defying Western sanctions closely track the attitudes of Russians elsewhere. Vladimir Putin's popularity rating in Kaliningrad is over 80 percent.

"At one time it was fashionable to talk about Kaliningrad 'separatism,' but nobody does anymore," says Mikhail Berendeyev, a political scientist with Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad. "Now we still have hopes for our region to be Russia's 'window on Europe.' But with the crisis, even that is fading. There is a definite danger of our territory sliding back into its old role as Russia's military shield against Europe."

Business opportunity?

But Shaig Mamedov, who runs an agribusiness based on an old collective farm he's taken over, insists that there is an upside to the crisis, with its economic war of Western sanctions against Russia and counter-sanctions on European foodstuffs ordered by Moscow.

As a food producer, just starting up amid tough conditions, Mr. Mamedov says he hasn't been able to compete with cheap EU imports. But now, despite the fact that many Kaliningraders buy much of their produce in Poland, bulk imports are forbidden and new niches are opening up for local farmers like himself.

"We've found that we can produce strawberries that are just slightly more expensive than Polish ones, and by next year every farmer around here will be doing that," he says. "With this blockade on food imports, it really gives local producers an opportunity to develop."

But he adds that he doesn't like the crisis, or the political tensions that are souring Russia's relations with its neighbors.

"Your neighbor influences you a lot, and Kaliningraders need to become more like them. There are a lot of things we could learn. It is my sincere hope that we will catch up with them one day. I want that very much."

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