In mid-July, news came from the Ukrainian government that it would create a specific agency to handle the task of securing Crimea’s reintegration into the rest of the country. Russian troops formally took control of Crimea on March 18, 2014 after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the region’s Treaty of Accession.
As if reintegrating an occupied territory were not complicated enough, Russian plans to construct a land bridge to Crimea threaten to further frustrate Ukraine’s efforts. The bridge signifies more than just easy access for Russian tourists and propaganda to enter the peninsula. Rather, its construction is driven by the idea that more exposure to the Russian mainland will lead Crimeans to develop closer relations with Russia – and turn away from both Ukraine and the West. But, if history is any guide, the bridge will fail to prevent young Crimeans from peering westward.
Building a bridge to Crimea is not the Kremlin’s first attempt to create connections with another a Russian population with mixed European identity. The former East Prussian region of Kaliningrad, known as Königsberg while it was part of Germany, has seen its share of Kremlin-sponsored programs aimed at maintaining a sense of Russian identity among its citizens.
At the end of World War II, in 1945, Kaliningrad, located on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania, came under Soviet control. While a third post-war conference was supposed to decide the fate of the Baltic territory, the meeting never took place. Seizing the opportunity to control a warm water port on the Baltic Sea, the Kremlin was in no hurry to bring the matter to the Allies’ attention.
Between 1945 and 1947, approximately 100,000 to 500,000 Germans were transferred from their homes in Königsberg to Soviet-occupied East Germany. Those who refused to leave were forced into starvation. In the meantime, the Kremlin mounted a full-scale publicity campaign to entice Russians and citizens from Soviet countries to immigrate to the region. Propaganda films highlighted the improvements Soviet architects were making to the devastated city, as well as the wealth of new opportunities the region had to offer. Kaliningrad’s ethnic Russian population slowly increased to replace its German residents thanks to these fresh arrivals. Today the region’s population stands near one million residents, with around 80 percent ethnic Russians, 8 percent Belarussians and the remaining split between immigrants from other parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Challenges to Keeping Kaliningrad Russian
While Kaliningrad is physically separated from Russia, its strategic importance as a Baltic port has compelled Moscow to maintain ties with the exclave This task has only been complicated by the political allegiances of two of Russia’s neighbors, both of which border the region: Poland and Lithuania. Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999 and the European Union (EU) in 2004 , while Lithuania also formally joined both organizations in 2004. The fact that both countries have since become part of the Schengen Area, a union of 26 European countries with a common visa-free policy, has further frustrated Moscow’s efforts to maintain ties between Kaliningraders and the rest of the country. Without special transit visas to allow them through Schengen countries, Kaliningrad’s one million residents are unable to travel by land (the cheapest alternative) to visit Russia.
Such restrictions on movement pose several problems for the Russian government. First, it reduces the ability of Kaliningrad-born Russians to develop a sense of understanding and appreciation for Russian politics, history, and culture. Without an easy or direct way to travel to Russia proper, or “Big Russia” as many call it, young Kaliningraders are unable to experience Russian culture by visiting the motherland. With Europe so close by, those who are fortunate enough to be able to travel most likely prefer to head west toward warmer weather in Europe than northeast, back to Russia. Destinations such as Spain, Italy, and even neighboring Poland are already popular vacation destinations for Kaliningrad residents. University students, in particular, favor visiting these destinations. Although travel to Russia holds a certain allure, it is simply not as exotic or exciting.
Second, geographical isolation from Russia means that Kaliningrad residents have become more accustomed to non-Russian goods and services. Again, this is particularly true for the region’s youth, who largely prefer Western style restaurants and bars. Absent from the town center are the popular Russian chains Teremok and Kroshka Kartoshka. Instead, Kaliningrad’s teens and young adults enjoy hamburgers from McDonald’s and beer from bars with names like “Libeerty,” “British Pub,” and “Britannica.” In fact, McDonald’s has experienced great success in the exclave. In 2010, company representatives announced they would be opening up to five restaurants in the region over the next several years. As of today, two McDonald’s restaurants have already opened within a half-mile radius of one another. On any day of the week, both are filled with young Russian customers.
Purchasing or consuming Western-style food and drinks does not mean, however, that Russians in Kaliningrad will stop appreciating or enjoying equivalent goods from Russia. Instead, the risk for the Kremlin is that young Kaliningraders have already or will become increasingly used to consuming Western style products. This may increase public opposition to unilateral import bans such as Russia’s recent decision to prohibit food imports from Western countries. In a region that relies so heavily on imported goods and services, Kaliningrad is more likely to suffer from such bans than are other Russian regions.
In recent years, the Kremlin has responded to these trends by subsidizing flights between Kaliningrad and other cities in Russia. While a $200 round-trip ticket to Russia may not seem like much, for those Kaliningraders who can neither spare the money nor obtain a coveted Schengen Visa, travel options are limited. Even though Poland and Russia came to an agreement on a Local Border Traffic (LBT) zone in 2011, the agreement restricts visa-free travel for Kaliningrad residents to roughly no more than the first 50 km of Polish territory.
Cross-border Traffic and Informal Trade
The abundance of informal commercial activity at the Poland-Kaliningrad border is astounding. At all hours of the day, Russians and Poles crisscross the border in cars loaded high with goods. For their part, Poles cross into Russia in search of cheap gasoline and cigarettes. Gas stations even provide special one-sided ramps for cars to lean on while filling their tanks; like water bottles at a drinking fountain, the tanks fill higher when tilted at an angle. Often times, drivers step inside station stores to purchase as many cigarette cartons as border control will allow them to carry back. EU import requirements specify that travelers can bring a maximum of 200 cigarettes and one full tank of fuel when entering from a non-EU country. With no further reason to remain in Kaliningrad, Poles return across the border without a second thought.
Kaliningrad residents, on the other hand, have much more to look forward to in Poland. Young Kaliningraders seek Schengen visas and border passes to go on weekend vacations to Poland and to shop in an EU country where merchandise is cheaper and of a better quality. On any day of the week, one may see countless hatchback cars sitting idly on the side of downtown roads in Kaliningrad with their trunks popped open. Packages of meats, cheeses, and simple consumer goods from Poland, Lithuania and other EU countries are carefully laid out for shoppers. It is also common for these independent, cross-border traders to fill individual orders, such as for diapers or European infant formula requested by young parents. Again, it is not that these products are unavailable in Kaliningrad, but that European brands are generally of superior quality even when their prices are sometimes higher.
As a result of the March 2014 referendum that Moscow used as justification to annex Crimea, Russia currently exercises control over about 2.5 million citizens in Crimea. The majority, 60 percent, claim Russian ethnicity, while 25 percent claim Ukrainian ethnicity and the remainder are a mix of Tatars and other Eastern European ethnicities. The high percentage of ethnic Russians in the disputed territory goes beyond proximity to Russia and like Kaliningrad, has its roots in the end of World War II.
An Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic between 1921 and 1944, the region was occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. As the war ended and the Red Army marched westward, Joseph Stalin accused the region’s Tatar population of collaborating with the enemy and exiled the majority of Crimea’s Tatars to Central Asia; as was the case in Kaliningrad, many perished from starvation and hardship en route. Ethnic Russians from the west and Ukrainians from the east moved in to fill the empty spaces after 1945. The territory remained an administrative district of Russia until 1945 – when Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine. The circumstances surrounding Crimea’s annexation to Ukraine are subject of scrutiny; however, the Kremlin later affirmed the region’s allegiance to Ukraine by signing the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership in 1997.
Lessons from Crimea
By virtue of geographical proximity, Crimeans are unlikely to be as isolated from Big Russia as their Kaliningrad counterparts. However, should Ukraine ever join the EU, the Schengen Area and potentially even NATO, the situation will become eerily close to the one Russians face in Kaliningrad. Most Crimeans would miss out on the economic and potential travel opportunities that Ukrainians across the border would doubtless be busy enjoying – just like Poles and Lithuanians currently do across the border from Kaliningrad. Crimean youth and other consumers would also enjoy fewer opportunities to purchase international goods, as Russian variants would likely occupy most storefronts and supermarket shelves.
Signs of these trends are already evident as McDonald’s announced its withdrawal from Crimea this past April. Indeed, just as quickly as the fast food giant withdrew from the region, a relatively unknown Russian burger chain known as Rusburger quickly took its place, offering diners an oddly ironic “taste of Russia.” How many more Western brands will follow and whether McDonald’s will return is unclear – but the implications are not.
Over the course of the next few months, Moscow is likely to finalize transitioning Crimea to Special Economic Zone status (a designation also enjoyed by Kaliningrad). The transition is likely to be a beneficial one for the peninsula’s inhabitants, should Moscow triumph and the West acknowledge Crimea’s status as Russian territory. Thanks to benefits from free trade and liberalized investment regimes, foreign goods and investment may eventually find their way into the disputed peninsula. Crimeans, like Kaliningraders before them, could one day enjoy rising incomes, generous Kremlin economic packages, and even travel subsidies to keep them connected with Big Russia.
Challenges for Moscow
If Moscow’s experience with Kaliningrad is any indicator, solidifying ties between Crimea and Russia will not be a simple matter. The Kremlin has already instituted variants of cultural immersion programs for Kaliningrad youth to travel to Big Russia. The intent of these programs is to “introduce Kaliningrad’s youth to Russian culture, history and traditions.” However, the underlying implication is that the region either lacks these features or is losing its Russian identity. Recent independence movements reaching into Kaliningrad are already hinting at this process just as the country’s agricultural import ban is poised to create financial difficulties for Kaliningrad residents.
Whether or not a majority of Crimeans voted for annexation by Russia in the March referendum may prove largely irrelevant with time. Social, cultural and economic interactions between Crimeans and Ukrainians cannot be stopped even as Ukraine continues its push for greater European engagement. For Moscow, the risk exists that the allure of western products and lifestyles will have the same impact on Russians in Crimea as it has had in Kaliningrad. The inability to travel or access lifestyles that are just across the border will create an identity rift between Crimeans and Russians. Moscow seized Crimea relatively unchallenged; however, retaining control in a westernizing environment may prove the greater challenge.
Editor’s note: The original dates of Poland’s NATO and EU memberships were mistakenly reversed and have been switched.