Staunton, September 13 – Officials in Moscow who “constantly fear mythical Kaliningrad separatism” are as a result “closing their eyes to all the remaining difficulties” there, many the result of sanctions and counter-sanctions “as a result of which the loyalty of the local population to the center is falling,” according to Gleb Kuznetsov.
The political scientist made that argument at a meeting of Moscow, Warsaw and Kaliningrad experts organized this week by the Rosbalt news agency to discuss what participants said is a situation in which Russia’s “Kaliningrad oblast has turned out to be the main hostage of the conflict situation” (rosbalt.ru/kaliningrad/2014/09/12/1314609.html).
The exclave, the only Russian region which is “practically completely surrounded by countries which have joined the European Union and NATO, is more connected economically and in terms of transportation with those countries than with the rest of Russia and so is most negatively affected by the sanctions regime, participants said.
Ilya Shumanov, who is a leader of the Kaliningrad Regional Anti-Corruption Experts Community, said that his oblast “has turned out to be not prepared for the introduction of sanctions,” including both a falloff in visitors from Poland and increases in domestic prices for many basic goods.
He pointed out that in Kaliningrad since the introduction of sanctions and counter-sanctions, the price of fish has gone up 2.5 times and that many local factories processing Norwegian fish are now “at the brink of bankruptcy.” And he pointed to increasing “scandals” at the border involving the confiscation of food purchased by Kaliningraders in Poland.
Almost all of the problems Kaliningraders are facing arise from Moscow’s counter-sanctions rather than from the EU sanctions in the first place. “In Kaliningrad,” the experts said, “no one seriously is focusing attention on the introduction of new sanctions” from the West. Instead, they are concerned about what Moscow is doing.
Kaliningraders are interested in buying food in Poland where prices are significantly lower. “’Polish apples’” which are sold in Kaliningrad now as “’Rostov’ apples” cost “almost five times more than in Poland. And tomatoes and pickles are almost twice as expensive as in the neighboring country. Alcohol is also much more expensive in the exclave than in Poland.
The experts at the meeting said that along with these price changes has come a change in attitudes among Poles about Kaliningrad. Until recently, most Poles saw expansion of trade with that region as a good thing. Now, they view it as “a military-strategic object” Moscow may use to pressure them.
“Russians often say that Kaliningrad is a ‘besieged fortress,” but given the events in Ukraine, “Poles as well as Lithuanians and other Baltic republics feel themselves as in that situation,” something that Moscow’s military exercises in the Baltic have only exacerbated, reviving many of the stereotypes of the cold war.
There is not going to be a war in the region because both Russia and NATO have nuclear weapons, the experts said, but “the psychological playing on the threat of war has led to a situation in which scenarios which not long ago seemed unrealistic, as a result of their constant mention, are beginning to seem completely probable.”
“Despite the general worsening of the situation in [Kaliningrad],” the experts concluded, “no sharp changes are expected there in the immediate future. Instead, all the same problems which have long characterized Kaliningrad oblast will simply become more serious,” especially if officials there and in Moscow continue to ignore them.
Regional officials have a particular responsibility to address them, the participants said, but little can be expected if as now they “prefer to report that sanctions will help ‘local entrepreneurs.’” That, of course, is what Moscow wants to hear given Vladimir Putin’s statements, but it is simply not true.