Features Kaliningrad’s problematic exclave status

The distinguishing feature of the Kaliningrad region is the fact that it is an exclave, part of but separated from Russia by two countries, Poland/Belarus or Lithuania/Latvia, though with access across the Baltic Sea (thus strictly speaking a semi-exclave). It is Russia’s only exclave and is the biggest in Europe. Seen from inside it is an enclave (or a semi-enclave).

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:1. Vol. XII. pp 70-72
Published on balticworlds.com on March 26, 2019

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The Russian military intervention in Ukraine not only led to Western economic sanctions, but also to increased fears, especially in the Baltic states and Poland, countries that strongly sympathized with Ukraine, that something similar could happen to them. They therefore called for a greater NATO presence in the area, and NATO duly created new collective forces to assist them, placed small forces on a rotational basis, and held more exercises on their territories. This in turn evoked Russian fears of Western infiltration in Kaliningrad to create a new Maidan and of separatism among the population. Suspicions and accusations were particularly directed against German organizations and people interested in the region’s German history. Russia also intensified its military buildup and exercises in Kaliningrad.

The distinguishing feature of the Kaliningrad region is the fact that it is an exclave, part of but separated from Russia by two countries, Poland/Belarus or Lithuania/Latvia, though with access across the Baltic Sea (thus strictly speaking a semi-exclave).It is Russia’s only exclave and is the biggest in Europe. Seen from inside it is an enclave (or a semi-enclave).1

Exclaves in European history

First, a short historical and geographical exposé. En/exclaves have been common in Europe since time immemorial. Many have existed in empires. One extreme example was the Holy Roman Empire (of the German nation) which formally existed from 800 to 1806. Under an elected emperor crowned by a pope, it consisted of many feudal states or pseudo-states (kingdoms, duchies, city-states, etc.), many ethnic groups with shifting boundaries, and many ex/enclaves.2 Other empires were those of Britain, France, and Austria-Hungary. As argued by several historians, empires are typically characterized by ideas of universalism, unstable boundaries, and expansionism.3

The emergence of nationalism, aiming at creating states based on ethnicity, split the European empires into many new states, at the same time as the states became more centralized with fixed external boundaries, and most ex/enclaves were eliminated. Most important was the unification of Germany in 1871. However, Germany soon became imperial and expansive, and Hitler’s ambition to gain a corridor across Poland to its East Prussian exclave in 1939 unleashed the Second World War.4

After the war, a new ‘liberal’ trend emerged in Europe to overcome nationalism by building economic and democratic unions, resulting eventually in the European Union and the Schengen agreement, which reduced the importance of internal borders and enclaves. The common external borders were maintained, but efforts were made to make them efficient and to promote stability and progress beyond them in Eastern Europe. Thus three ways of handling exclaves can be discerned in history — including them in empires by conquest, maintaining them as parts of nation states, and overcoming their isolation by liberal trans-border arrangements.

Turning now to Russia, it was a Tsarist empire for over 400 years, bent on expansion and incorporation of foreign territory. It was succeeded by the Soviet Union, which formally became a federation, aiming to spread communism to the whole world and implementing this through territorial expansion after WWII. Internally it drew meandering borders and created several en/exclaves and sub-units among the Soviet republics, partly in order to satisfy national claims, but in reality internal borders mattered little since it was a highly centralized dictatorship with strict external borders. Königsberg/ Kaliningrad was conquered for military reasons and became a military bastion against the West. All surviving German inhabitants fled or were expelled. When the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia became a federation and Kaliningrad an exclave, both dominated by Russians. Conflicts erupted among former Soviet republics over enclaves in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and Russia’s first concern was to maintain its new borders and prevent separatism as in Chechnya.

Liberal solutions

Since the Kaliningrad region was small and not self-sufficient while Russia in the 1990s was engulfed in economic and political crisis, the liberal Russian governments, which strove for cooperation and integration with the West and professed adherence to democratic values, chose to open it up to trade with its neighboring countries. It became first a Free, then a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which meant customs-free foreign trade and tax breaks for foreign investors. Western trade and investment increased, and the region was involved in various forms of cooperation with foreign regions, while the military presence was reduced. In Russia’s 1999 medium-term strategy for relations with the EU, Kaliningrad became a ‘pilot region’ of cooperation, which could be extended to Northwest Russia if successful. In the 1990s Moscow also allowed a rather liberal visa regime with Poland and the Baltic states. Foreign consulates were opened in Kaliningrad city. Many more Kaliningraders acquired international passports than other Russians, and they traveled more frequently abroad than to Russia proper. To offset this, Moscow started to subsidize air travel to and from Kaliningrad.5

The issue of military transit across Lithuania was regulated in 1993 through an agreement that stipulates inspections and fees and has to be renewed every year. The agreement has been criticized by Lithuanian parliamentarians in times of crisis, for example in 2008. In order to circumvent the land transit, Russia soon started to send military cargo by sea to Kaliningrad, and as early as 1994 only one percent of all land transit goods was of a military nature.6 In the 2000s there was a car and passenger ferry from St. Petersburg to the coastal naval port of Baltiisk, and since 2006 there has been a ferry line with two ships carrying cargo, trains, and passengers from Ust-Luga in the Gulf of Finland to Baltiisk and onwards to Sassnitz in Germany. In 2017 a decision was taken to build three new ferries, and one was ordered to be built by 2020. However, there were problems with loading and competition over space and financing. The region wanted six ferries to satisfy its needs.7 Thus the region still depends on transit.

When Poland and the Baltic states prepared to join the EU and the Schengen visa-free zone in 2002, Russia first demanded a corridor through Lithuania on the model of West Berlin after the Second World War, or more specifically, an air corridor across Lithuania, cargo transport across Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland by rail and road without inspections, and the right to build oil and gas pipelines and electricity cables through these states. When these proposals were rejected by the EU side, not least for their ominous historical connotations, Russia finally accepted a compromise allowing for visa-free train travel for Russian citizens across Lithuania (through Vilnius) with a so-called Facilitated Rail Transit Document, an arrangement which is still in force.8 As late as in 2011 Russia and Poland agreed on visa-free ‘local border traffic’ for inhabitants of Kaliningrad and two adjacent Polish regions, which also seemed promising.9

Nationalist and imperial approaches

However, this rather liberal, cooperative approach in Russia was opposed by other ways of thinking, and these finally prevailed. Since 2000 President Putin has centralized political power and suppressed all democratic opposition. At the same time, thanks to rising energy export prices and the devaluation of the ruble, the Russian economy started to show steady growth, which allowed a military buildup, boosted self confidence, and underpinned a tougher attitude towards Western democracies. More military exercises were held in Kaliningrad.

The political leadership saw Russia as the sole successor of the Soviet Union as well as of the preceding Russian Empire. Putin saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the previous century and the toppling of the Tsar and the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 as equally disastrous.10 Russian nationalists developed a “hegemonic national identity” which includes Ukrainians and Belorusians,11 and launched the idea of a “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) beyond the present borders based on language, although the Orthodox church instead emphasized religion as the uniting factor. The Eurasianists, who emphasized the importance of territory and geopolitics, were even more anti-liberal and anti-Western. Both Russian nationalists and Eurasianists were inherently expansionist and perceived the present boundaries as temporary.12 All this contributed to the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 and the proclamation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states under Russian tutelage, as well as the seizure and incorporation of Crimea and the support for the separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk in 2014. Both interventions occurred on the pretext of saving Russian compatriots from repression, but were intended rather as steps against NATO enlargement.

As for Kaliningrad (and all other regions to varying extents), federal control increased. In 2006 new rules for the SEZ restricted the list of duty-free imports and the number of foreign investors decreased, while large, state-owned Russian investors were favored. The regional budget received 60 percent of its income from the federal budget in 2011. Suspicion against Western influence and intentions and fears of (negligible) local separatism grew. Calls for more autonomy and an elevated status in the federation were ignored. Extreme geopoliticians wished to restore Kaliningrad as a military stronghold and achieve free civilian and military transit across Lithuania, like Germany had to East Prussia across Poland before the Second World War. Others hoped to make the Baltic states an exclave cut off from Poland and thereby NATO and the EU.13 The Communist Party, extreme politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Eurasianists like the philosopher Alexander Dugin and the author Alexander Prokhanov have long dreamt of Russia regaining and expanding the Soviet borders, reconquering the Baltic states, and thereby doing away with the exclave situation. Curiously, however, both Dugin and Prokhanov are on record as wanting to return Kaliningrad (Königsberg) to Germany, apparently as part of a division of Europe.14

Post-Ukraine 2014

The Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014 not only disrupted Russia’s political relations with the West but, also exacerbated Kaliningrad’s exclave position. The Western sanctions on Russia in the financial, energy and military fields together with sinking world market energy, prices brought the Russian economy to a standstill, and depreciation of the ruble had negative effects on Kaliningrad, which was dependent on both foreign trade and federal support.

In addition, he Russian countersanctions against the West, which entailed an embargo on imports of most kinds of foodstuff, hit Kaliningrad hard, as the region had grown very dependent on such imports and its agricultural sector had been totally neglected since Soviet times. Foodstuffs constituted 15.8 percent of its total imports, and EU states covered 90 percent of its meat consumption.15 On top of this, Poland suspended the local traffic agreement with Kaliningrad in mid-2016. Foreign trade and tourism diminished and turned away from European neighbors to partners overseas. Kaliningrad is further being cut off from the Soviet-era electricity network as the Baltic states are switching to the EU network and have linked up to Sweden and Finland. Further, since Russia has joined the WTO, it had to scrap the SEZ in mid-2016 insofar as customs were involved.

The effect of all this on Kaliningrad has been increasing self-reliance (that is, import substitution) in agriculture, as in all of Russia, and more dependence on federal support. Food consumption decreased in 2014 –2017.16 The share of federal transfers in the regional income budget rose from 30 to 70 percent in 2015-2016. In 2017 President Putin signed a new law on the SEZ, granting residents new tax privileges instead of customs exemptions. Both the industrial and agricultural sectors started to grow, and trade and tourism with Poland picked up thanks to still rather generous visa rules.17 Instead of expanding the gas pipeline across Lithuania, which would be cheaper, Russia has decided to build four new power plants in the region, two of which were inaugurated by Putin in March 2018, to be fed by a floating liquid natural gas (LNG) plant and bigger storage capacities.18 As a response to NATO’s intensified presence in the region, Iskander cruise missiles with a range of about 500 km and capable of carrying nuclear weapons were placed permanently in the region and an Anti-Access/Area denial capacity was established, intended to keep NATO out of the Baltic Sea area. Russian officials also started to talk about Kaliningrad as a military stronghold against the West.19


One might conclude from all this that Kaliningrad at present is very far from the liberal ‘post-modern’ hopes of being integrated into the surrounding EU region or becoming a bridge between Russia and the EU, thus diluting the significance of the borders and blurring the region’s exclave status. In line with growing Russian nationalism and hostility against liberal Western democracies in recent years, Kaliningrad has instead become totally dependent on the federal center and — if not isolated — then at least more separated and estranged from its neighbors due to the suspension of agreements and trade favors. The military buildup in Kaliningrad makes the region look more like a threat to its neighbors than the other way round. The borders have become more significant and well-guarded, thus underlining the exclave/enclave status of the region. The transit across Lithuania still functions but is fragile and open to provocations. Russian fears and hostility to the West combined with a perceived position of strength in the region creates fertile ground for expansionist and imperialist schemes, which could entail efforts to the eliminate Kaliningrad’s exclave/enclave situation by military means. However, the Russian leadership is also aware that overall and in the long run, the West is the stronger side in any future conflict and that drastic solutions to the complicated Kaliningrad problem would run fateful risks. The experience of 1939 is a strong reminder. ≈


1 Pertti Joenniemi, “Appendix I: Kaliningrad- enclave or exclave?” in Joenniemi, Pertti, and Prawitz, Jan, Kaliningrad — The European Amber Region, (Ashgate: Aldershot, 1998), 261 ff; Evgeny Vinokurov, Kaliningrad — Enclaves and Economic Integration, (Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies, 2007), 7 ff, 148 ff).

2 Thomas Lundén, “Exclaves — Geographical and historical perspectives”, in European exclaves in the process of de-bordering and re-bordering, Jaroslaw Jańczak, Przemysław Osiewicz (eds.) (Berlin: Logos Verlag, 2012:18), 11—19.

3 Igor Torbakov, “Ukraine and Russia: Entangled histories, contested identities and a war of narratives”, in Bertelsen, Olga (ed.) Revolution and War in Contemporary Ukraine, (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2016), 109.

4 Vinokurov, 23; Lundén, 15.

5 Jadwiga Rogoza, Agata Wierzbowska-Miazga and Iwona Wisniewska, A captive island. Kaliningrad between Moscow and the EU (Warsaw: OSW Studies, no. 41, 2012), 65. Available at: http://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-studies/2012-07-25In

6 Ingmar Oldberg, Kaliningrad – Russian exclave, European enclave, (Stockholm: Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), 2001), 22.

7 New Kaliningrad (December 18, 2007), https://www.newkaliningrad.ru/news/others/341367-.html; New Kaliningrad (June 19, 2017), https://www.newkaliningrad.ru/news/briefs/economy/13924727; New Kaliningrad (August 16, 2017); New Kaliningrad (May 21, 2018), https://www.newkaliningrad.ru/news/briefs/economy/18588224

8 Oldberg, 2001, 46 f; Vinokurov, 2004; Lars Grönbjerg, ”Kaliningrad — a danger zone for EU-Russian relations”, in Marketplace or military bastion? Kaliningrad between Brussels and Moscow, ed. Ingmar Oldberg, (Stockholm: Swedish Institute of International Affairs, 2018).

9 Krzysztof Żęgota, “The Kaliningrad oblast: An area of cooperation and conflict of interests” in ed. Oldberg, 2018.

10         Igor, Torbakov, “Putin’s ambiguities over the 1917 revolutions” in Utrikesmagasinet, Swedish Institute of International Affairs, http://www.analyser/putins_ambiguities, EurasiaNet.org (March 1, 2017).

11         Torbakov, 2016, 103 ff.

12        Andrey Makarychev, “Reassembling lands or reconnecting people?” in Ponars Eurasia Policy Memo, no. 367 (2015).

13        Sergunin, “Kaliningrad: From one puzzle to another?” in Oldberg (ed.) 2018.

14        Per Arne Bodin, “Rysslands gränser i politiken, kyrkan och fantasin,“, Östbulletinen, no. 3 (2009); 11—13.

15        Kaliningrad.ru (August 19, 2014), www.kgd.ru/news/item/3754816, New Kaliningrad (8 May 2018), https://www.newkaliningrad.ru/news/briefs/community/18403791.

17         (Sergunin, 2018; Iwona Wisniewska, “Kaliningrad in the Kremlin’s policy”, in Baltic Rim Economies, issue 2 (May 24, 2017), available at www.utu.fi/pei;Żęgota, 2018.

18         New Kaliningrad (February 26, 2018), https://www.newkaliningrad.ru/news/briefs/economy/17315014.

19         Sergey Sukhankin, “The end of ‘hide and Seek’: Russian Iskanders permanent ly in Kaliningrad”, in Eurasia Daily Monitor, vol. 15, no 28 (February 23, 2018).

  • by Ingmar Oldberg

    Research associate at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) since 2009, member of its Russia and Eurasia programme, formerly Deputy Director of Research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).

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