Over the past decade we have become accustomed to hearing of crises and trouble-spots in the post-Cold War Central and Eastern Europe. By contrast, the Baltic Sea region has been marked by economic growth and political stability. But such growth and stability cannot be taken for granted. Extensive multilateral efforts have taken us where we are today, and additional work will be required to fully exploit the Baltic Sea region’s cooperative potential. I have in mind our neighbors, the Kaliningrad region of the Russian federation.
Half the size of Maryland and with a population of less than a million, the Kaliningrad region is a Russian enclave located on the Baltic Sea coast, between Lithuania and Poland. From the Cold War era, Kaliningrad has inherited many problems. Its economy is lagging badly behind the general growth of the Baltic Sea region. There are severe social problems, an unstable legal environment, an unattractive investment climate, the inability to pay debts, corruption, crime, smuggling, excessive militarization, and a military complex which until recently dominated the region’s industry.
Following restoration of the Baltic states’ independence, Kaliningrad found itself separated from the rest of Russia. Once Lithuania and Poland join the European Union and Lithuania joins NATO (Poland is already a member), what used to be considered a “garrison” will feel encircled and find itself surrounded by, but not taking part in, the European integration process. This undoubtedly presents a challenge for all concerned: Russia, Lithuania, Poland, the EU, and NATO. If the political, economic, and social situation in Kaliningrad deteriorates further, and solutions for its development are not found, the area may become a “black hole” and a source of instability for the entire Baltic Sea region.
On the other hand, with additional efforts to guide the region toward European integration, Kaliningrad could become Russia’s gate of opportunity for political and economic cooperation with an undivided Europe. From the Lithuanian perspective, the Kaliningrad region offers a unique opportunity for promoting Russia’s modernization. It is in our interest to contribute to a smooth development of the region by engaging it in practical, cooperative projects, regional and cross-border activities, and people-to-people contacts. It would also help to mitigate the emerging fears of some Russians that the region might be “closed” or “isolated.”
Even in the early aftermath of the Cold War, the United States understood the importance of a regional approach to the Baltic Sea area. The U.S. strategy in the region has been outlined in its Northern European Initiative (NEI), introduced in September 1997. It aims to help build a stronger, more unified, and more stable region which includes parts of Northwestern Russia, both economically and socially, through cooperation and cross-border ties. The United States could also encourage American investment in Kaliningrad. That would help ensure that the Baltic Sea region becomes a gathering of prosperous and eventually developing countries. Initiatives to downscale its military forces could also be designed.
For its part, at the height of the 1998 Russian economic crisis, Lithuania provided humanitarian assistance to Kaliningrad’s schools, kindergartens and its hospitals by sending truckloads of medicine and food. Since then, as this year’s chair of the Council of the Baltic Sea States a unique regional body comprised of the Nordic and Baltic States (Germany, Poland, and Russia) Lithuania has initiated numerous practical, cooperative efforts with Kaliningrad in a number of areas, such as transport and energy, environmental protection education, health care, cross-border cooperation trade and investment, and combating crime. Growing investment in Kaliningrad, including that of Lithuania, has created new employment opportunities for the local population and serves as the best practical example of the modern approach to bilateral cooperation in the region.
Within the European Union’s Northern Dimension (ND) framework, the prime ministers of Lithuania and Russia have agreed to prepare a joint proposal for the EU, which would involve Kaliningrad in the ND regional programs.
NATO also has many opportunities at its disposal to contribute to stability here. The alliance could well aid in the conversion Of Kaliningrad’s military industry, the disposal of chemical weapons, and the development of a civil emergency response plan. Since there are over 30,000 military personnel in Kaliningrad, more inclusive cooperation with the Russian military is necessary. Indeed, Poland as a new NATO member is already maintaining contacts with the Russian Baltic Fleet based in Kaliningrad, thereby contributing to increased confidence between NATO and Russia in the Baltic area.
Overall, the situation of Kaliningrad should be seen not only as an obstacle but also as an opportunity and an asset. Kaliningrad presents itself as a test of Russia’s “Europeanization” vis-a-vis the processes of Euro-Atlantic integration. Conversely, for the Kaliningrad region neighbors, as well as for the transatlantic community as a whole, it is a test of how to create an integrated Europe without creating new lines of division. Continuous attention to the issues concerning Kaliningrad is essential in international efforts to strengthen relationships with Russia and to further development of the Baltic Sea region in this period of transformation.