At a Crossroads: Kaliningrad's Fate. (Global Note Book)

Article excerpt

Kaliningrad, an obscure Russian territory nestled between Poland and Lithuania, was part of East Prussia before World War II. Formerly known as Konigsberg, its name was changed to Kaliningrad when it was transferred to Russia after Germany's 1945 defeat.

Despite its proximity to the Baltic Sea and other European countries, Kaliningrad never became the flourishing trade portal that resource-rich Russia had envisioned. Instead, it has become a region infested with poverty, corruption, AIDS, and a wide variety of contraband, ranging from Afghan heroin to weapons for Al Qaeda. The root of this predicament lies in the rampant corruption among local administrators and the debilitating red tape imposed by the Russian bureaucracy.

The territory, however, could precipitate a collision between NATO and Russia in the near future as NATO seeks to expand to the Baltic states despite Russian opposition. The little publicized region also has recently become an epicenter of controversy between Russia and the European Union because of visa complications due to EU admittance of Poland and Lithuania in 2004. The Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985 and fully implemented in 1995, removed border patrols between EU countries to allow their citizens to move freely within the entire European Union. While this treaty makes travel for EU citizens much easier, it restricts entry into EU countries from non-EU countries. With the implementation of the Schengen agreement in Poland and Lithuania, Russians face a hurdle when traveling through the EU countries to Kaliningrad.

As might be expected, Russia has objected to this prospect and has asked that its almost one million citizens in Kaliningrad be exempted from EU visa rules. At the Council of the Baltic Sea States in June 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked why Russian citizens traveling to Russia from Kaliningrad should obtain permission from foreign officials and called the EU policy "worse than the Cold War." Insisting that the issue was one of sovereignty and human rights for Kaliningrad Russians, Putin, ironically enough, related the situation to that of West Berlin when it was isolated inside the Soviet bloc. While the European Union has acknowledged the legitimacy of Russia's demand and has offered to issue cheap long-term visas to Kaliningrad Russians, Russia has demanded complete exemption from travel restrictions for its Kaliningrad citizens. Two possible solutions are non-stop trains and subsidized flights across Lithuania between Russia and Kaliningrad.

For Poland, Lithuania, and the European Union, however, granting visa-free passage to Russians going to and from Kaliningrad involves huge risks. First and foremost is the increasing problem of illegal Eastern European migrants pouring into EU states. According to the International Organization for Migration, an estimated 1.6 million Eastern Europeans migrated to Western Europe in 2000 alone. Thus, Poland and Lithuania are reluctant to create a zone that could be used as a corridor to their own and other EU countries. In addition, smuggling is rampant in Kaliningrad; euphemized as "border trading," it is commonly condoned by authorities and constitutes a way of life for many in the region. Moreover, Kaliningrad has the highest incidence of AIDS in Europe. The European Union thus often views Kaliningrad as the next Odessa, a Ukrainian port notorious for smuggling and sex tourism. …