Blackout Points to Kaliningrad’s Future in Europe

By Matthew Czekaj
At approximately 9:05 p.m., on August 8, the lights went out across Kaliningrad, the largest city in the Russian exclave region of the same name. The power outage was caused by a malfunctioning high-voltage power line leading from the Kaliningrad-2 combined heat-and-power plant, and it affected 30 percent of the region’s residents. That blackout did not last long, however. Within about 45 minutes, electricity flowed into Kaliningrad from neighboring Lithuania (Interfax, August 13).
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich drew some specific conclusions from this incident. In particular, on August 12, he argued that to secure Kaliningrad’s energy grid from future outages such as this, the Russian exclave needs to be connected to what he referred to as the “Baltic-Russia-Belarus energy ring”—an interconnected system of grids and electricity substations, which would more closely tie the power grids of the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the grids of Russia and neighboring Belarus (Interfax, August 13). Yet, Deputy Prime Minister Dvorkovich’s suggestion appears to entirely disregard the long-term trends currently driving energy policy in Europe.
Due to the legacy of the Baltic States’ former inclusion in the Soviet Union, the electricity grids and energy infrastructure of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are almost exclusively tied to Russia and the former Soviet Union. This leaves the Baltics vulnerable to politically motivated disruptions in the power flow, which Russia has repeatedly employed in an effort to alter these countries’ domestic policies. During 1998–1999, for example, Russia cut oil shipmentsto Lithuania nine different times in an effort to pressure Vilnius into selling its pipelines, oil refinery and port terminal to the Kremlin-connected LUKOIL. This reality, combined with the lack of energy inter-connectors to the rest of the European Union has led to the Baltic States being referred to as an “energy island.” However, Brussels has pledged to resolve this geopolitical vulnerability.
On June 17, 2009, with the backing of the European Commission, eight EU Baltic littoral states—the Baltic States, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Poland—signed a memorandum of understanding on the Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan (BEMIP), which lays out concrete measures to connect the Baltics to the rest of the EU’s energy networks. Inter alia, the plan envisions building a so-called “Baltic ring” network, which will create electricity links between the Baltic States, Central Europe and the Nordic countries. Mindful of the need for this large-scale project to succeed, the European Commission is pressuring Russia and the Baltic States to reach an agreement by 2013 whereby the Baltics’ electricity grids will be de-synchronized from the Unified Power System electricity grid, which encompasses the Russian Federation and most other former Soviet republics. Synchronizing the Baltic States’ electricity grid frequency with Continental Europe’s ENTSO-E grid instead is an important first step to connecting the Baltic “energy island” with the rest of the EU.
Assuming that Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn maintain their current policy course toward greater integration with Europe in the energy sphere, Moscow will have a difficult time trying to tie their power grids ever more closely with Kaliningrad’s. Dvorkovich’s insights about the implications of the August 8 blackout were just the opposite of reality. Indeed, disconnected from the rest of Russia and nestled between two EU member states, Kaliningrad is more likely to achieve security in its power grid by becoming more like its European neighbors than for its neighbors to move closer to the Russian Federation.
Kaliningrad, with its recent history as the East Prussian city of Konigsberg and geographic location as an enclave within the EU, is arguably more suited to closer relations with Europe than any other Russian area.  As early as January 2001, then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder actually floated the idea of an association agreement [link is a PDF] between the EU and Kaliningrad, and, that same month, the European Commission presented EU heads of state with a document entitled “The EU and Kaliningrad,” which pushed themes of “cooperation,” “collaboration,” “intensification” and “development.” EU bureaucrats would even admit off-the-record that their goal was to turn Kaliningrad into a “European Hong Kong”—officially a part of Russia, but with a separate international status, presumably molding the enclave’s internal economic-political system to be more in line with European norms. These overtures predictably went nowhere, as Russia feared losing its grip on this geostrategically important territory, which it keeps highly militarized.
Nevertheless, by July 2012, Kaliningrad did, in fact, become differentiated from the rest of the Russian Federation by the institution of visa-free small-border travel [link in Polish] between this exclave and nearby regions within Poland. The mutual easing of travel restrictions applies to all residents of the Polish voivodeships (provinces) of Pomerania and Warminsko-Mazury and the Kaliningrad region who have lived there for at least two years. This visa-free travel will likely add to the Russian exclave’s conscious awareness of the inherent social, political and economic differences that exist between Russia and the European Union.
Anger over such disparities has already erupted into political turmoil within Kaliningrad before. Notably, in early 2010, Kaliningrad residents took to the streets in the largest protests since the end of the Soviet Union until that time. The demonstrators—10,000 to 12,000 individuals—called for the resignation of the region’s governor and chanted slogans against the ruling United Russia Party. The Guardian(February 2, 2010) quoted opposition leader and independent deputy Solomon Ginzburg as saying: “Unlike most Russians, we can compare living conditions here with those in Poland and Lithuania,” He added, “[Kaliningrad Governor Georgy] Boos promised us the same standards as the EU. It turned out he was lying.” The 2010 protests should not be interpreted as a sign that Kaliningrad is likely to break away from Russia or demand full EU membership anytime soon. But they do point to the fact that at least a portion of the exclave’s population realizes its own prosperity will be more assured if it opens up more to the rest of Europe.

And contrary to Deputy Prime Minister Dvorkovich’s arguments, the same will hold true regarding Kaliningrad’s energy situation. As the EU works to eliminate the Baltic States “energy island,” Kaliningrad will find itself as its own island within a European continental electricity grid. The best solution then may be for this Russian region to become more European itself.