OPINION

Letter from Kaliningrad

Serguei Bezberezhev – a youthful, suave representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, based in Kaliningrad – smiled whole-heartedly and was positive when I asked him how he sees his country’s eventual accession to the European Union. On the map you find this «Western Russian enclave» surrounded by Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea. After having been almost completely forgotten by Moscow, Kaliningrad – the seat of a Greek honorary consulate with a Russian at its head – will be physically inside European territory when the EU enlarges next year. The birthplace of German philosopher Immanuel Kant («Don’t obey any authority, however important it claims to be»), the ancient seat of the kings of Prussia and Josef Stalin’s trophy territory in 1945, is rich in historical resonances. As a base for the Soviet Baltic Sea Fleet this region forcibly lived a closed-off life until 1991. Sure enough, Kaliningrad is part of the Russian Federation and it is Russian authorities who run business here. However, developments and problems in Kaliningrad (often dubbed a «corridor of crime,» and also better known for AIDS epidemics, plagues of drug use, pollution and bleak tower blocks than as Kant’s birthplace) can have an impact on the wider region and on present and future EU member states. That’s why the European Commission has provided an assistance program in the area for more than 10 years. Since 1991, the European Union has made a large financial commitment to Kaliningrad, providing roughly 40 million euros under the EU Tacis program. Arriving here after a two-hour flight from Moscow, you are tempted to consider it as a small country of its own rather than a part of modern Russia. Once the seat of the Teutonic knights, what was once the grand Prussian city of Koenigsberg now offers a surreal, unique experience to the more daring visitor. Busts of Marx and Lenin still line the streets. Having been obliterated during the war, Kaliningrad now boasts a surprising number of attractive parks and gardens, some surviving remnants of the city’s German heritage and an interesting selection of wartime monuments and museums. According to statements made by senior officials in Brussels, this enclave can be treated as a pilot project for the development of EU-Russia relations. That means that solutions found here could prove useful in cooperation with other Russian border regions and even with Russia as a whole. Ambassador-at-large Valentin Bogomazov, responsible for the region of Kaliningrad, whom we have interviewed for ERT-3 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, seemed also most positive when we spoke of a close collaboration between Europe and Russia. However, former EU leaders – otherwise so fond of talking about free movements of people – warned, «Not too close!» Until now, Kaliningraders could travel visa-free across Lithuania and Poland to Russia or Belarus. No wonder cross-border trading and smuggling boomed. «Their free travel demands are strongly supported by Moscow. And you know why?» asked my interlocutor, who introduced himself as someone from Azerbaijan who had emigrated to Texas, in the bar of the four-star Komandor Hotel and did not really expect an answer from me. «It’s because Vladimir Putin’s wife Lyudmila is from Kaliningrad, that’s why! Of course, it’s also a matter of fundamental human rights, you know,» he added. Wife or no wife, Moscow keeps insisting upon the right to visa-free transit from the enclave of Kaliningrad to mainland Russia and back, while the European Union wants there to be free visas, whereby the residents will not have to pay to reach what is after all their own country. And what do the residents themselves want? In the few days I stayed there, my estimation is that they most positively want looser control by Moscow and a stronger association with the EU. «After all, those of us who have lived here for a long time always felt ourselves to be strangers in Russia and, until recently as the Soviet Union was a multinational state, some of the newcomers were certainly not Russians,» said a student I met during a performance at the Kaliningrad opera house. It took me quite some time to realize that I should not use the word «Russians» so lightly. In such cases, countless non-Russians – Karelians, Baskirs, Belorussians, even some Kaliningraders etc. – are rightly offended. «So what should one call them?» I asked Moscow-based John Nikolopoulos, a journalist who has served as the head of the Greek press office in the USA and the USSR as well, who has a son by an American wife and one by a Russian and speaks several languages fluently. His advice was: «Call them Rossijanin, which means a citizen of Rossija.» It seems there is a good reason as to why the Russian coat-of-arms, the double-headed eagle, similar to the Byzantine one, has its heads turned in opposite directions – one to the West, the other to the East. According to the Moscow daily Pravda’s April 28 edition, there are a few hardliners that glance westward and who would favor independence from Moscow, setting up a new state within the European Union. «Was the region to allow the EU to exert some sort of control at the airports and seaports, in time, visas would cease to be necessary for those leaving the enclave for Russia and would only be necessary for incoming persons,» Pravda wrote, adding that «Russians living in Kaliningrad would eventually have the right to travel freely within the EU, creating thus the first step for all Russians to be integrated.» No doubt, no one yet knows where this new Europe is going to lead us to. We have to examine things judiciously. Kant said: «Look at everything through your own eyes and examine it thoroughly» – or was it Aristotle?