(Washington, DC--November 7, 2002) The agreement that the European Union and Russia will finalize next week on transit through EU territory for the residents of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad will affect both the future of the EU and economic development in Russia, according to an expert on the region
Richard Krickus, a Professor Emeritus at Mary Washington College and one of the few scholars to have studied the Kaliningrad exclave over the last decade, told a RFE/RL audience this week that the poverty and isolation of the residents of this Russian oblast could finally be addressed if both the West and Russia view the exclave as a "testing ground" for economic and political development. The current negotiations over transit rights for the residents of Kaliningrad are a first step in that process.
Putin now realizes that EU enlargement is a greater concern for Moscow over the long term, Krickus said, and will compromise on the EU's visa requirements, known as the Schengen regime. Russia has demanded visa-free transit for the Kaliningraders, but the EU will offer Russia a simplified visa procedure of transit passes, and sealed express trains through Lithuanian territory. According to Krickus, three conditions must be met before express trains are an option: a one-year feasibility study must be completed, EU funds for the new high-speed railway must be provided and Lithuania must itself be granted membership in the Schengen visa regime.
A decade ago, Krickus said, there was optimism that Kaliningrad would be a center of economic activity on the "Hong Kong model", but this didn't happen and "the talk now is of a black hole" in the European heartland. With HIV/AIDS rates three times higher than the rest of Russia, skyrocketing drug use, and ecological disasters, Krickus said the exclave "relies on the kindness of strangers," much like the playwright Tennessee Williams' fictional character Blanche DuBois. These "strangers" are the EU and its TACIS and Northern Dimension technical assistance programs rather than Moscow, which Krickus said provides only ten percent of allocated revenues to the oblast, according to Kaliningrad Duma representatives.
Kaliningrad has been thought of as a possible flashpoint between Russia and the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The exclave served as a military zone for as many as 200,000 army, navy and air force personnel in the late 1980s. However, that threat never materialized--current troop strength is estimated at 25,000, with aging equipment, although it is the home of the Russian Baltic Fleet. Krickus said that Russian fears that the Germans or Lithuanians might have territorial claims on Kaliningrad have also proved empty, because "no one wants 950,000 people who need social welfare" and have few economic assets.