Kaliningrad oblast (KO) is perhaps the most known worldwide and extensively covered region of the Russian Federation. However, most of the analysts are still frustrated by multiple uncertainties surrounding KO perspectives and unparalleled specificity of this region, which leaves the problem of understanding the developments in this peculiar Russian province still open to debate.
The first problem is that most of the writings on KO could be grouped in two separate categories, loosely connected to each other. One group of scholars basically deals with region’s domestic political processes – elections, elite changes, relations with the federal center, and so forth. The second group looks at KO mainly from international relations lens, discussing its roles in European and/or Baltic Sea integration.
Each of these two dominant approaches – one developed by political science, and the second one by international relations – has achieved a lot, yet neither of them fully reflects and represents the whole spectrum of political relations in which is KO is partaking. Hence, there is a need for integrated research combining both domestic and international dimensions of KO regionalism, and bridging the gap between two autonomous research fields as being formed nowadays.
The second problem is that one of interpreting and conceptualizing the KO developments, and incorporating this region into wider theoretical debates that are going on in Europe and worldwide. KO is a good case study for tracing different logics of regionalism, each one having its own conceptual underpinnings. Of course, it is not that easy to relate specific IR theories to these or that political platforms. This linkage of course is not always evident, and I can only identify some affiliations (sometimes loose ones) between theoretical positions and orientations, one the one hand, and political practices concerning KO, on the other.
Therefore, the purpose of this paper is two-fold. First, I intend to reconstruct and depict a specific logic of regionalism in KO as seen from identity perspective. Secondly, I want to explain identity issue as related to KO through the prism of the region’s domestic politics, thus bridging the gap between inward and outward developments. Of course, as a theory, constructivism is mainly rooted in international policy discourse, yet one of my tasks would be to discover its intrinsic determinants.
1. Kaliningrad Oblast at the Intersection of the Northern and Baltic Europes
The logic of constructivism has many adepts in both academic and policy making circles of countries surrounding KO. Conceptually, the constructivist way of thinking relies upon rich traditions of peace research and different post-positivist interpretations of politics and society.
Constructivist conceptions posit that “all spaces (regions, states, localities, networks, etc.) are both discoursive and material constructions”202. Constructivist logic assumes that there is a lot of “empty political space” to fill out after the demise of the Communism. Kaliningrad could have been treated as one of these “empty spaces” prone to incorporation into neighboring surroundings. KO fits well into what might be called “adjacent areas of the Nordic region”203, but this reading is open to varied interpretations.
The political space of “Eastern Europe”, being the legacy of the Cold War, has almost disappeared as one of formerly basic markers of European geopolitical system. Yet the countries and regions of what was formerly called “Eastern Europe” have to find new identifications and new niches. Connecting some of former “Eastern Europe” areas to the “northern horizontal” is one of the most widely debated options. In this case the “northerness” could have become a mediator of different historical and cultural worlds, a pole of attraction of resources and initiatives. The creation of Euroregion named “Baltica” (with KO included and the Russian recognized as one of two official languages) is one of attempts to “multilaterize” the regional agenda in this part of Europe and find positive linkages between what formerly used to be “Eastern Europe” and what might become “Northern region” in the future.
Ola Tunander assumes that “the Nordic area is extended eastwards and its center is shifting from its West Nordic to its East Nordic and Baltic Sea area”204. In result, Nordic and Baltic regions open up new channels of dialogue with EU non-members, which is a high priority task for Brussels205. Major regionalist initiatives are based on inclusive, rather than exclusive principles. At the same time, Russia is granted the status of being “one of us”, as potential partner which might feel at home with both Baltic and Nordic initiatives206.
“Northern Dimension” region building project, advocated by Finland, fits quite well into constructivist logic. “A small and relatively peripheral country appears to has grasped the initiative” of doing away with the old opposition between “East” and “West” as the core signifiers within Europe207. This is one of few and rare example of newcomer’s passionate drive aimed at constructing new political coordinates that suit the country, and finding out new political identity in rapidly changing circumstances.
The Northern Dimension was born out Finnish debates on Europe. After the fall of the Berlin wall, Finland was not eager to associate itself with Eastern Europe – this geographic area has become too uncertain and lost its political identity in 1990s. Neither Finland wanted to accept the indisputable hegemony of the EU208. One of explanations of Finland’s leadership in promoting the Nordic agenda is that “Finns became more used to appeasing greater powers than their Scandinavian brothers”209.
Yet the debates about new “coordinates” in Europe keep going on. It is quite symptomatic for example that significant parts of political elites in Estonia and Lithuania prefer to treat their countries as belonging to “Central Europe” rather than to the “Baltic region”210. Estonia, by the same token, occasionally characterizes herself as a “Nordic country” as well211. On the contrary, the Northern Dimension topic keeps a low profile in the Danish political discourse on Europe.
Hence, Baltic and Nordic Europes are yet not well established entities. Both are still in search for their social and intellectual identities and political relevance. It is still debatable what is the Baltic Sea region and what is the Nordic Europe – catchwords, exercises in image building, “organizing principles”212, or promising regions-in-the-making. The Northern Dimension could have been interpreted as an initiative within the existing framework of Baltic Sea cooperation, or as an attempt to integrate the Russian regions bordering the Baltic Sea into existing trans-national frameworks, or as a tool for fostering pre-accession process of the EU applicants213. All these conflicting interpretations could easily be found in the political and academic discourses.
At any rate, in Pertti Joenniemi opinion, region building projects in the Baltic and Nordic Europes are at odds with endeavors to maintain a rather centralized and hierarchic European Union. Culturally, there was always a sort of opposition of European and Nordic civilizations shaping political debates in Scandinavian countries. Brussels, as a political incarnation of the “Fortress Europe”, is perceived by many in Europe as a “soft imperial center”214. Others apply tougher wording – like “neo-medieval” or “neo-Sumerain” empire ostensibly displaying geopolitical expansionism in its own ‘near abroad” zones (like Baltic and Mediterranean regions)215. Yet the same is true as well with regard to Baltic and Nordic opposition to Russia, the country that is often perceived as hierarchical, centralized and even menacing power.
Baltic/Nordic region building efforts challenge the centralizers and make Europe more multilayered, pluralistic, less coherent and less centrally controlled. If the Russian Federation (and to lesser extent European Union) is formed in the “top down” way, the Nordic and Baltic regions are of “bottom up” background216.
The fact is that KO exists in two political spaces simultaneously, being a part of both Nordic and Baltic Europes. The great advantage for Kaliningrad oblast is that the Baltic and Nordic region building projects are not predefined by somebody in Western Europe or elsewhere, and thus leave spacious room for individual initiatives. In Pertti Joenniemi words, the concept of regional integration “has been coined in a number of scholarly texts and appeared in various political speeches”. In fact, it has started as a “semiotic project”217 with “re-reading history, cultural studies, and re-directing communication flows…The very first step has been a series of conferences, think tanks reports, and articles in more or less scientific journals. The first steps have been taken by intellectuals, to some extent the cultural elite”218. Think tanks, epistemic communities and other “cognitive actors” thus played major role in shaping and designing the region-building initiatives and making them a part of wider public debates219.
Neither Baltic nor Nordic Europe has a single ‘founding father’; they rather are made of exchange of views, with a broad variety of voices220. There is nothing like “intellectual hegemony”221 in this constructivist exercise of regionalism, since all voices are different. Some argue, for example, that “after Denmark, Sweden and Finland have all become parts of the integration process of continental Europe, the motive for safeguarding a separate Nordic model of organizing the economy and society has been under pressure and even questioned”222. As Uffe Ostergard puts it, “there are no objective laws binding the people of Norden together in a common destiny. But there is a historical and cultural raw material on which such an identity may be built”223.
The lesson for Russia is that it has to stop perceiving Europe as a single and unified civilizational block. Otherwise Europe would be what the EU defines it to be, and Russia might face the challenge of exclusion from the European political, economic and social spaces. Russia has a unique chance of organically participating in the region-building effort which opens up opportunities skipping traditional “East-West” lines and making them less divisive224.
The mission of Kaliningrad, in full consent with constructivist logic, might be to prevent “the wall-like borders between the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’ through the Schengen system” to be established225. It is critically important that the Baltic Sea and Nordic regions are being formed without any overall plan or superior authority, and even with no strict criteria for membership226, which might make Russia’s voice stronger in decision making procedures. Such issues as regional identity, and even regional security, are socially and politically constructed phenomena in this area227. Thus, by participating in international region-building projects, Kaliningrad oblast might contribute to elevating regionality into a core principle of constructing political space in this part of Europe. Also, it has to profit from the fact that there is a Northern and Baltic ways to deal with Europe. At the same time, Russia has to perceive the Northern Dimension and the Baltic Sea region as an opportunity to join the “democratic space” where the main priorities are human rights, minorities protection, and healthy environment228.
One might agree that “Kaliningrad is more exposed to foreign influences than other Russian regions”, and that “Europe has a tremendous cultural influence on the region”229. Yet finding Kaliningrad’s place in the Nordic and Baltic regions is not that easy. Unlike other territorial actors in this part of Europe, KO lacks strong regional identity, which in a sense weakens its integrative drive and overall cooperative potential. This partly explains the lack of indigenous initiatives and innovations aimed at joining the Baltic and Nordic “concerts”, and heavy reliance upon either Moscow or Brussels. From the very beginning, KO was an artificial territorial unit, a Soviet trophy of the Second World War. It has to break away its historical and cultural affiliations due to geopolitical and security considerations. KO’s initial purpose – the military outpost of the Soviet Union – has lost its former relevance. Most of experts think that Kaliningrad is of little strategic and military value. In Alexander Sergounin’s words, “the military significance of Kaliningrad has dramatically declined in the 1990s… Many military analysts doubt that Kaliningrad is really defensible from a strategic point of view because of its remoteness and low fighting efficiency”230. The search for new, non-military roles proves to be extremely hard and time-consuming. However, it is doubtful unfortunately that “all regional players are very serious about solving the Kaliningrad problem”231 – inaction and passive resistance to further KO internationalization are still major obstacles for region’s integration to Baltic and Nordic Europes.
The whole situations gets even more complicated for KO if we take a look at oblast’ future through the lens of a number of dualities and dilemmas. Indeed, KO finds itself:
at the intersection of Baltic and Nordic Europe;
between geopolitics (leading to region’s isolation) and geoeconomics (offering the road to integration);
between regional interests (laying in the field of decentralization and getting more powers) and federal center imperatives (demanding centralization and restoration of the “power vertical”);
between values (ideals) and pragmatic interests. On the one hand, what matters for the West are some political principles – openness, democracy, accountability, transparency, etc. On the other hand, what is always in mind is security, energy supply, and transportation232;
between self-sufficiency (in energy supply, amber industry, etc.) and interdependence (which is inescapable in trans-boundary collaboration);
between competition and cooperation. Both aims are proclaimed by Russia: it is said that, on the one hand, KO should be competitive in foreign markets. On the other hand, prime minister Mikhail Kasianov has assumed that Kaliningrad has to avoid rivalry and conflicts of interests with its neighbours – in particular, with Klaipeda port of Lithuania233;
between security and economic cooperation. There were attempts to conceptually marry these two issues: for example, the Federal Targeted Program on KO adopted by Russian government in 1997 has pointed out that one of purposes of Free Economic Zone (FEZ) is securing Russian military and defense interests in the Baltic region. Of course, the “security – economic cooperation” nexus might be feasible, yet the problem is that each of its two parts needs special instruments. It is more or less clear how all parties involved are planning to solve economic cooperation problems; and much less clarity exists with the ways to deal with security challenges (in a typically obscure manner, the head of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that “Russian military presence in KO will be maintained on the level securing country’s safety”)234.
Being a part of a number of region building initiatives, Kaliningrad oblast finds itself in a very innovative yet still uncertain intellectual and political environment. Narratives of Kaliningrad are very subjective, and not much in this “cognitive space”235 is self-evident. Yet Russia’s exclave has not only to live up with this uncertainty, but also find the ways to reshape the Baltic “cognitive space” for her own sake and readjust it to her own interests.
In a sense, region is not only geographic, but a mental and cultural unit as well, and all participating parties are willing to impose their meanings on emerging regional constellation. Different political forces try to represent situation in Kaliningrad differently, keeping an eye on their own interests. In this sense Kaliningrad regional discourses are very pluralistic and in a way “de-centralized”. This heats up debates on regional issues and makes important PR dimension of region building.
There is a great variety of “code words” in Kaliningrad discourses, which perform special functions – that ones of “signifiers”, “markers” of regional identity. Most of these terms are far from being universally accepted, and are often debated and disputed amongst specialists. This varied terminology contains multiple cognitive metaphors that have to be interpreted and re-interpreted according to the topical and disciplinary context. In result, the regionalist discourses are constructed around certain images of Kaliningrad future which might be open to multiple interpretations. Hence, there is an ample space for what is often called “imagination”, or creativity in approaching the whole spectrum of Kaliningrad-related matters. This again emphasizes the importance of expert communities that focus their intellectual capital on regional issues.
It is worth noticing that starting from 2001 the federal government of Russia has recognized the importance of positive information coverage of the plethora of Kaliningrad-related matters. To make the federal information policy more coherent and favorable to Russia, in April 2001 Kaliningrad was visited by the Minister of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Media Mikhail Lesin, Minister of Communication and Informatization Leonid Reiman, and the head of Information Department at the Presidential Administration Sergey Yastrzhembskii. They have done first steps in what the journalists have called “advertising campaign” to promote positive image of Russia’s western exclave worldwide236.
It is understood that metaphors are parts of search for symbolic capital, which is an important part of regional-building agenda in the Baltic Sea region. Russia has clearly displayed her interest in positive images of KO future. Here are the most widely spread metaphors that to certain extent reflect Kaliningrad’s alternative futures:
“the meeting place”237 of Russia and Europe, a kind of “bridge” between the two. In practice, Russian authorities seem to understand the advantages of turning Kaliningrad into “international business center”, and have decided to allow issuing visas for foreign travelers immediately upon crossing the border.
Russia’s “cradle of internationalization”. For example, Yurii Sinel’nik, the head of Russian State Fishery Committee, has suggested that Kaliningrad oblast ought to become “free customs stock of global scale”238. Similar to this view is labeling Kaliningrad as “the window” (at least, “ventilation pane”) to Europe.
“RussianHong Kong”239, a “zone of export production”, with sufficient degree of economic and administrative freedom. This is the metaphor coined by the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) led by Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada.
“five-star-hotel”. This urbanistic metaphor connotes with making Kaliningrad a city comfortable to business people and tourists, which might give new boost to the city budget.
Less obliging is the “laboratory” metaphor, “testing ground” (one of favorite wordings of MFA officials and KO regional bureaucracy known for their caution) or “litmus test”240;
Kaliningrad as replication of the spirit of East Prussian culture, associated with old Kenigsberg-style traditions in architecture241 and mental legacy. The best metaphor to express this “cultural marker” is “Kalininsberg”242, alluding to possible re-germanization of this territory.
“the island”, or “the garrison”. The media messages linking Kaliningrad with the military garrison often come from the West. For example, in 2001 some of Western media have spread information saying that Russia has been moving nuclear warheads to Kaliningrad.
“infrastructural hole” (“poor neighbor”). Wide spread are feelings that Kaliningrad is a sort of “civilizational bankrupt”243 surrounded by much more successful competitors. In the Russian media one can find numerous articles on Kaliningrad covering such frightening issues like ecological dangers, proliferation of diseases and epidemics, and declining demographic potential244;
the “colony”, which turns to be a burdensome heritage of the Soviet past (in particular, this view was shared by Zhirinovskii’s Liberal Democratic party245).