An outpost in Europe's heart

The scientific research vessel Cosmonaut Victor Patsaev waitsin the harbor in the center of Kaliningrad

The scientific research vessel Cosmonaut Victor Patsaev waitsin the harbor in the center of Kaliningrad

Winds of change are sweeping through Kaliningrad, Russia’s western outpost and a new hive of democratic politics. After years of neglect, the region is determined to make up for lost opportunities.

In January this year, Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost region and home to some of the most picturesque seascapes, rocked with anti-government rallies against a sharp hike in transport rates, giving a scare to the Kremlin. Located on the Baltic Sea, the region, sandwiched between Poland to the south and Lithuania to the north and east, has since then gone through a baptism of sorts, bringing to the fore modern Russia’s tryst with democratic politics.

The story goes that one Saturday evening, when a BMW X5 driven by a local businessman ran over a young man on a zebra crossing, the motorcade of the region’s governor, Georgy Boos, was passing by. To the surprise of eyewitnesses, the motorcade stopped and the governor got out of his car and called an ambulance. He found himself in a situation familiar to thousands of Russian citizens: he was referred from one operator to another and asked to hold. The governor even called his health minister, Yelena Kluykova, who did not answer his call. Finally, after half an hour’s wait in freezing weather, the bleeding victim was picked up by an ambulance. The health minister was fired shortly after the incident.

Opponents claim the incident was a publicity stunt by the governor, but Boos insists his being on the spot was a pure coincidence. “Only a couple of months ago, nobody could have imagined anything like this taking place,” says Andrey, who has been living here for years.

Four and a half years ago when the Kremlin sent a young and ambitious businessman close to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to govern the area, Kaliningrad, known as Russia’s western outpost, was rocked by corruption scandals and problems stemming from the introduction of Shengen visas in neighbouring European Union countries.

“Before 2004, we traveled freely to Poland and the Baltic countries and getting a visa was no problem. Suddenly, all of this changed,” recalls Vladimir, an official.

The area was in danger of being cut off from mainland Russia. Meanwhile, the economy was stagnating, despite the region’s many privileges and status as a special economic zone.

Part of the region’s present problems stem from its history. The area was a part of Germany called Eastern Prussia before World War II, with the capital named Koenigsberg. In 1945, Koenigsberg fell to the Soviet Army. The Germans left behind a network of roads, numerous architectural monuments and typical German houses. At first, the Russian authorities paid scant attention to the region, expecting it to be returned to its former masters. The Nineties saw growing calls for returning the region to Germany and renaming it Koenigsberg once again. Although separatist ideas were never aired at a high level, dreams inspired by the prosperous Europe next door sometimes cropped up in conversations with locals.

Boos promptly plugged into these sentiments and started his term as governor by building a modern autobahn, the showpiece project of his tenure. The well-lit, smooth four-lane highway puts the airport within a 12-minute drive of the city centre. This is a section of the future $300 mn Maritime Ring, which will link Kaliningrad with the beach holiday resorts in the west and north of the region. The highway, which has now nearly reached Zelenogrdsk, is probably the best road in the country.

Boos has also ambitious plans to build a luxury marina on the Baltic coast and a Formula 1 race course. The global meltdown has, however, wrecked his soaring dreams. The crisis and the way the authorities handled it after a steep hike in housing, utility and transport rates turned out to be a trigger for mass rallies in January that called for the resignation of Governor Boos and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The crisis also sparked a new wave of activism and drove many greenhorns into politics. Konstantin Doroshok, leader of the movement Justice, who was among the initiators of the rally, says politics was never on his mind. From the mid-1990s, like thousands of other Kaliningraders, he made a living by bringing in second-hand cars from Europe. The wake-up call came four years ago, when Doroshok and other small businessmen faced tax claims. Doroshok was presented with a 30 mn roubles ($1mn) bill. The final blow to his business was dealt by the prohibitive import duties slapped on used cars that the federal government introduced during the economic crisis, mainly to shore up the floundering Soviet-era dinosaur AvtoVAZ. After all that, Doroshok said he had no option but to become an activist.

Similarly, Vitautas Lopata says he joined the opposition because he was fed up with inspections. “The former mayor, Savenko, did not allow cafes to be built. So I decided to go into politics to defend the rights of businessmen like myself," he said.

The damaging impact on the region’s economy can be seen in the small town of Mamonovo on the Polish-Russian border, once home to a thriving car parts market. Now the once buzzing market wears a desolate look. Sitting in his huge gubernatorial-sized office, the mayor of Mamonovo, Oleg Shlyk, merely shrugs: “The car dealers and the shuttle merchants brought in no revenue because they paid no taxes. We put our stake on developing production.” The production of plastics has started and the fish cannery has been reopened, he says, adding that he also hopes to organise sea crossings to Poland and is building purification plants with EU money.

The burst of activism has, however, changed the governor. “While previously he thought only about mega-projects and ignored criticism, he now regularly meets with the opposition, has become aware of everyday problems and reacts to our ideas,” says Solomon Ginsburg, an opposition deputy in the regional parliament. For example, on Lopata’s suggestion the post of vice governor for infrastructure projects has been created. All the opposition’s demands have been met: the transport tax rise has been revoked and utility rates have been declining.

Now the spotlight has shifted to the big question: what will drive the region’s growth? Tourism could be an answer. The best-known holiday resort in Soviet times was Svetlogorsk. A creaking old lift takes you from the city’s beach to the high Baltic shore for 20 roubles. From there, a lift operator as old as the elevator itself offers faded Soviet-era postcards of Baltic seascapes for sale. Clearly, tourist facilities need a major revamp. Some 40 km to the north lies Kurskaja Kosa, a nature reserve on the UNESCO list, with sand dunes that mirror a desert landscape and strange, twisted trees reminiscent of modern art known as the “dancing forest”. Woefully short of tourist services, only a small café remains in business.

“There is a lot of room for tourist development,” says Alexander Blinov, the mayor of the town of Yantarnoye (Amber). Five years ago, Yantarnoye was mainly known for its amber quarry - the prey of looters - and bloody brawls among the locals. Now there are signposts everywhere directing visitors to landmark sites and German houses are being restored. “We promote activity tourism and hold various festivals and sporting events which attract a constant flow of tourists. We provide the best possible environment for investors,” Blinov said. Of course, a lot of work remains to be done. But as the building of a full-fledged holiday resort shows, Kaliningrad has woken up to lost opportunities and is now in no mood to miss the bus.

In his own words

Governor Georgy Boos on the recent wave of protests

in office : since 2005
age: 47
party: united Russia

Why have social conflicts arisen in Kaliningrad?
This is a perfectly normal phenomenon for any democratic society. And it shows that the inhabitants of the Russian exclave have a high degree of civic awareness. It is also a result of external post-crisis factors: reduced living standards as a consequence of the recession and a rise in certain taxes.

Have you succeeded in dealing with the protests?
One of the main lessons for me is that we need a new format for dialogue between the authorities and society. This is already happening. One new form of communication is the regional TV channel’s live video link. I have already received more than 1,500 appeals from various parts of the region, some of which I have been answering for four hours and some will receive a reply.

Kalinigrad, the amber land
The most western region of Russia, the land of sun amber and nonfreezing Baltic Sea, the cultural and tourist gates connecting Russia and Europe – all this is the Kaliningrad region. It is rightly called the amber country, since more than 90 pc of the world's explored amber reserves are located in the region. The largest amber deposits are located mainly in the northwestern part of the Samland Peninsula, with total amber reserves estimated at 283,000 tons. Amber production is currently several hundred tons per year, but the state-owned Amber Company uses only one-tenth of this production to make jewelry. Amber is not only processed into jewels, but also into other products, such as high-quality insulators. One can admire amber in the Museum of Amber in Kaliningrad, or even find a piece while wandering along the shore. (See amber market stall in the picture below).

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