On July 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin relieved the governor of Kaliningrad Oblast, Nikolay Tsukanov, of his duties (Krpress.ru, July 29). Tsukanov’s temporary replacement, Major-General Evgeny Zinichev, used to head the local branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) (Rugrad.eu, July 28). Later, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed Zinichev had previously also served as a presidential bodyguard (RBC, July 29). According to Peskov, this and several other personnel reshuffles in Kaliningrad—which increased the number of “siloviki” (security services personnel) in the regional executive branch—were allegedly carried out to “strengthen efficiency” and “correct negative growth rates where necessary” (Lenta.ru, July 28).
Tsukanov’s sacking last summer was surprising. In addition to being the first “democratically elected” governor of the region since 2005 (President Putin restored direct gubernatorial elections in 2012, and in September 2015 Tsukanov received more than 70 percent of the vote), he was one of the staunchest regional supporters of the ruling United Russia party and a person utterly loyal to Putin. Nonetheless, none of this protected him from being removed.
Some observers were tempted to seek an explanation for Tsukanov’s fate in the so-called “Prussian curse” (Newkaliningrad.ru, September 13), which has supposedly affected local governors since 1991. According to this locally-conceived “urban legend,” none of Kaliningrad’s governors will be able to stay in office for more than one term. So far, this has proven true for every one of the exclave oblast’s leaders, starting from the liberal Yuri Matochkin (1991–1996) to the loyalist Tsukanov (2010–2015). However, a deeper analysis of the local milieu reveals a much more a complex reality than that offered by political folklore.
In fact, a June 2016 meeting of the “Patrushev Commission” (a Security Council session headed by Secretary Nikolai Patrushev), which took place in Kaliningrad, already hinted that some serious local changes would ensue (Newkaliningrad.ru, June 20). In spite of the parsimonious information of that meeting that was made publicly available, it was apparent from the reports that the true picture of Kaliningrad does not match its artificially created image made for “external consumption.” Not only has the oblast in reality failed to “catch up and outdo” its geographic neighbors Poland and Lithuania (the main agenda of local governors since 2005), the gap between Kaliningrad and the leading Russian regions in terms of economic development is also inexorably growing. Moreover, in addition to being one of the main acceptors of federal financial assistance, the region is increasingly becoming bogged down in the mire of corruption and criminality, especially in the domain of amber extraction—a scourge that has not been defeated since the early 1990s (Newkaliningrad.ru, June 20). Moreover, a humiliating scandal (that was rapidly hushed down) regarding the Baltic Sea Fleet proved that something is indeed fundamentally wrong on the Russian “island” in Europe (see EDM, July 19).
In addition, Moscow was visibly annoyed with the evident collapsing level of local support for Governor Tsukanov, as reflected by an early 2016 survey conducted by the Foundation for Civil Society Development (Izvestia, March 21). For the Kremlin, the potential political repercussions of this loss in popularity were troubling. Incidentally, it was the combination of economic hardships and growing local frustrations with then-governor Georgy Boos (2005–2010) that pushed 15,000 residents of Kaliningrad to take to the streets in 2009–2010; their anti-Putin slogans were audible far beyond the oblast.
Russian political scientist Evgeny Minchenko has argued that the replacement of Tsukanov was based on concerns in Moscow over Kaliningrad’s “challenging” geopolitical position in addition to the worsening relations between the Kremlin and the West—especially the Baltic States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (RBC, July 28). This supposition does contain a good deal of truth. But the reality seems to be much more complicated and tightly connected with Kaliningrad’s specific identity traits, which are conspicuously absent in Russia’s other regions.
First, Kaliningrad’s economic performance is based on a combination of financial subsidies from the federal center as well as privileges granted by the region’ Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 2006. And now, Kaliningrad is on the brink of losing both of these benefits. The collapse of global oil prices is acutely constraining the first, whereas the abolishment of the SEZ on April 1, 2016 (as mandated by Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization), has already derailed the second. Moscow appears to have no strategy for how to effectively replace the revenue flows Kaliningrad’s economy had grown dependent on. This means that, from now on, the oblast can likely expect more austere fiscal measures—directly imposed from above and not to be questioned locally.
And in addition to economic policy, Moscow may start to politically tighten its grip over Kaliningrad to an even greater extent than it used to. Over the past 15 years, while trying to solve the “Kaliningrad Puzzle,” the federal center has oscillated between supporting the “locals” (Admiral Vladimir Yegorov and Nikolay Tsukanov) and the “Varangians” (Georgy Boos—a Moscow native, born into a Crimean German family). Neither approach seems to have worked. For a number of reasons—whether excessive personal ambitions, lack of docility or weak managerial skills—each governor ultimately proved a poor fit for governing the exclave. The newest Kaliningrad head, Zinichev, remains the most secretive governor in Russia. Indeed, his first press-conference lasted a mere 49 seconds (Newsru.com, July 31). But from what is known about him, he apparently satisfactorily meets the Kremlin’s expectations and the mission set before him.
During his June visit to Kaliningrad, Security Council Secretary Patrushev hinted at how the region may be expected to develop in the near future. Although Kaliningrad’s hardships are mainly of an economic nature, top Russian functionaries continue to blame the region’s “excessive openness” and its purported susceptibility to “external threats” as the main hindrance to progress. In this regard, Patrushev pledged to allocate more resources for upgrading “information security in the oblast” (Newkaliningrad.ru, June 20). This can be interpreted as the imposition of greater top–down control over Kaliningrad and the elimination of the last vestiges of external contacts. Presumably, Zinichev will be expected to play a key role in implementing this policy strategy.
Such a course is likely to be yet another failure in a long line of the Kremlin’s abortive regional initiatives. Arguably, Kaliningrad will only be successful if it reaches out to its European neighbors and becomes a “laboratory” of cooperation—otherwise, the “Prussian curse” will remain unbroken.