Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 13

Two events in the past week have focused attention on Russia’s politically sensitive Kaliningrad Oblast — a sliver of Baltic coastline sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania but separated from Russia proper. For some time, a heavy flow of private Russian traders has been crossing the border into Poland and, until now, all they required was a simple voucher-document. There was an uproar in Kaliningrad on January 5, however, when Poland tightened border controls and required Russian visitors to obtain entry visas. The Kaliningrad authorities accused Poland of having "closed" its border without prior warning. Poland denied the charge, saying the Russian Foreign Ministry had ignored an earlier announcement. Meanwhile, the Polish consulate in Kaliningrad was busy issuing about 300 visas a day, and Russians queuing for service were said to be blaming their own authorities for the delay.

Behind this chaotic turn of events lies continuing uncertainty on the part of the Russian government about the status and prospects of Kaliningrad and the best way of handling relations with its neighbors. Kaliningrad is supposed to be a special economic zone offering advantages for trade and foreign investment, but the regional administration and the federal government often act in ways more appropriate to Kaliningrad’s Soviet-era status as a military outpost on the Baltic.

This was dramatically demonstrated on January 15, when two British pilots were forced to land in Kaliningrad after their plane encountered 100-mile per hour headwinds over the Baltic Sea. The plane was a turbo-jet trainer with Estonian markings that had been purchased in Estonia for re-sale in the UK. The plane’s arrival in Russian airspace, despite its Mayday signals, was treated with deep suspicion by local military and security forces, and the pilots were refused permission to leave Kaliningrad for almost a week. Maj. Gen. Fedor Krisanov, deputy commander of the Baltic fleet in charge of air defense, claimed the incident might be "a provocation" and that it was "quite possible" that the pilots’ real purpose was to listen in to Russian military communications and test Russia’s air defense capabilities. (Itar-Tass, January 20)

…Highlights Dilemma Over Region’s Future.