Kaliningrad is preparing to celebrate the 300th anniversary of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s birth.
In this interview with Diplomaatia, Solomon Ginsburg, one of Kaliningrad’s most well-known politicians, claims that instead of becoming a missile carrier or tank base, the oblast could be turned into a bridge in improving relations between Russia and the European Union. He thinks that the EU should experiment with allowing residents of Kaliningrad, an exclave of Russia, to travel to Europe visa-free in the future.
Latvian-born Ginsburg, 57, was an MP in the parliament of the Kaliningrad oblast from 1990 but did not win a seat in the Duma at the last elections due to his overly liberal views. He was one of the leaders of the regional political protests in 2010 that can be said to be among the largest in Russia’s recent history and which led to the removal from office of Kaliningrad’s then governor.
Q: Kaliningrad oblast is a part of Russia with a unique location, as it is basically surrounded by the European Union. If we try to distance ourselves from realpolitik, and step out of reality for a moment, what would be Kaliningrad’s opportunities to turn into a place where cooperation between the EU and Russia could be restored?
A: It seems to me that both the elite in Russia and the EU want to save face while finding opportunities to get closer to one another since the current opposition caused by Ukraine and the Crimea is a dead end that cannot lead to anything good. Kaliningrad could be a very good option for reconciliation.
How do you think this could be organised?
An alternative set of subjects should be proposed. They should be specific and rather business-oriented in nature. We cannot agree over Syria, the Crimea and Ukraine in the near future but we should find areas in which we can cooperate profitably. The rouble and the euro would benefit from this.
Can you give an example?
Russia, especially the Kaliningrad oblast, has achieved a lot in the field of IT, despite the economic and social crisis. We could establish an IT campus here without large costs—something similar to Silicon Valley but, naturally, not as large—that would receive large concessions from Russia and get funding from the EU. I know that Germany, Poland would be interested in this.
Excuse me for being sceptical, but why would the EU be interested in an IT centre in Kaliningrad? But never mind. What other proposals do you have in mind?
Restoring Kaliningrad’s role as a transport terminal. From 2005 to 2009, there was a perfectly functional regional airline here that carried people from other Russian regions to Europe via Kaliningrad. [Kaliningrad Avia was virtually the first Russian low-cost airline, flying from Kaliningrad to many European cities, but it went bankrupt. Today, one can fly from Kaliningrad only to Russia, despite being almost in the heart of Europe.—JP] There is great demand for it right now [in Russia], so that people would not have to fly via Moscow.
Any other examples?
In seven years’ time, in 2024, we will have a great festive occasion that I consider even more important than the football World Cup. [Next year, this great sports event will take place in Russia, and some qualifying group matches will be played in Kaliningrad.—JP] The 300th anniversary of Immanuel Kant’s birth falls on 22 April 2024 and people will celebrate it all over the world. I know that plans are underway to commemorate it even in Wellington [New Zealand], where there is an association of Kant admirers. The committee for organising the international celebration of Kant’s jubilee should be based in Kaliningrad. Of course there are idiots from the United Russia party whose representative in the oblast duma proposed to decorate the entire region with statues of “Kind Kant”. [A kitsch statue with this name was erected in the Kaliningrad city centre at the end of December last year.—JP] The idea was to turn the statue into a kind of gnome that people could use to decorate their gardens. Even the cultural committee at the governor’s office discussed the idea. This is simply idiotic and embarrassing. The purpose behind it is simply to embezzle money, of course.
It is an interesting thought, but are you certain that the anniversary of Kant’s birth will garner worldwide attention? Ten years ago, an Estonian writer [Olev Remsu, in the weekly Sirp] commented, very aptly, that only a few read Kant but more or less everyone respects him.
Only a few have read [Martin] Heidegger and other great philosophers, but so what? This does not diminish Kant’s fame. I think that the 300th anniversary of his birth is more important [for Kaliningrad] than the FIFA World Cup since they will only have three matches here over a couple of weeks but Kant’s birthday will be celebrated throughout the year, from Norway to Chile. What else does Kaliningrad have to offer? Tourism is not really an option since the climate is not that great and the infrastructure is also underdeveloped for that purpose. We could also raise the quality of agricultural produce to the level it was in the first half of the 20th century, up to the war.
But how could Kaliningrad be proposed as an area for undertaking Russian–EU cooperation projects?
Unfortunately, we have not been able to market Kaliningrad even in Russia as yet. Everyone says that amber is our symbol, but it does not work. Much more beautiful objects are made of amber in Palanga and Gdansk.
I agree. How can you get Moscow interested in the idea?
We need asymmetric decisions. Moscow should be the first to take the initiative. For example, we must begin by allowing EU citizens visa-free travel to Kaliningrad. At the moment, this might be considered a very ambitious proposal, but it’s one that can be fulfilled. EU companies should get large tax concessions in the Kaliningrad special economic zone. This would attract foreign investors. We need to follow the principle of “one state, two systems”.
It is hard to believe that Moscow would agree to that principle!
I know. But presidential elections will be held in spring 2018. Something needs to be shown off, a positive example to be displayed. Why did Vladimir Putin send us a young governor? [Anton Alikhanov, who was appointed acting governor last autumn, is 30. He is Russia’s youngest governor since 1991.—JP] Putin needs his own Boris Nemtsov. [Nemtsov, who was killed two years ago, was 32 when Boris Yeltsin entrusted him with governing the oblast of Nizhny Novgorod in 1991 after the failed August coup, and he made it into one of the most successful regions in Russia in a few years.—JP] Back then, Nemtsov turned Nizhny Novgorod oblast into a real showcase, and even Margaret Thatcher visited the place. Putin needs something similar, an exemplary region. It would be easiest to achieve this with Kaliningrad, while also preserving political stability and the combat readiness of the Baltic Fleet. First and foremost, a serious federal law on the Kaliningrad oblast would be needed to liberalise the economic environment and attract investors. Authorities want to draft it but there is a lot of talk and promises in connection with this issue.
What do you think of the new governor?
We worked on the same committee for a year. He is, undoubtedly, a liberal.
Economically speaking, not in terms of political views?
Of course, otherwise he would never have been appointed governor.
Don’t you see a contradiction between talking about strengthening the fleet, i.e. making the region more militarised, and attracting investors from the EU at the same time?
At a time when intelligence satellites are capable of photographing a tank’s registration number, this is not a problem. For example, Hawaii is a foreign investor’s paradise but there are serious military bases right next to it.
Hawaii and the Baltic States live in a completely different security context.
The Baltic Fleet does not have the strategic importance of Russia’s Northern or Pacific fleets.
Surely the European investors you want to attract read the news about new missile systems being deployed to Kaliningrad.
You know, this myth was created in 2009 when Barack Obama became US president and people [in Russia] began talking about Iskanders, saying that they were necessary for deterrence. I bet that if you hired a hundred detectives they would not find a single Iskander here.
On the other hand, Iskanders have been good publicity for Kaliningrad since the oblast is now constantly in the news and it is talked about—consequently, everyone knows where and what it is.
That’s it, we also need to open a restaurant called Iskander!
On a more serious note: you spoke about Russia taking the initiative in proposing Kaliningrad as a venue for cooperation with the EU, in which the first step would have to be visa-free travel for EU citizens. What other symbolic gestures could Russia make?
The Russian foreign ministry could move the department or departments that deal with the EU to this region. It sounds like a fantasy, but why not? Kaliningrad would instantly turn into a venue for international negotiations. We have a great resort on the Baltic coast at Pionersk, which is empty 360 days a year. It was built for [Dmitri] Medvedev and [Vladimir] Putin. Two years ago, Putin’s special presidential representative Vladislav Surkov met Victoria Nuland [US assistant secretary of state] there to discuss Ukraine.
The governor of Kaliningrad oblast should be Russia’s special presidential representative on questions related to the EU; he should have additional authority to deal with certain issues directly, not through the foreign ministry. This would, of course, set a precedent but our oblast is a precedent owing to its geopolitical position. When the Poles put an end to simplified border crossing procedures in the summer , our foreign ministry did nothing to explain to them and prove why this was not reasonable. Both parties lost a lot from this. Go and see the situation on the Polish border a week or two before New Year. Half of Kaliningrad is queueing there to go and buy presents and other good stuff, like technology and medication, which are much cheaper and of better quality in Poland.
All those steps are necessary if we want to turn Kaliningrad oblast not into a missile carrier or tank base but, rather, a bridge between the EU and Russia. We have strong Northern and Pacific fleets, so we can allow Kaliningrad to be a bridge.
What could the EU do in turn to realise the idea of Kaliningrad as a bridge between Russia and Europe, even to a small extent?
The EU should treat the people of Kaliningrad like a beautiful lady: less locking up and more taking out. The EU also needs to promote its achievements more.
Here in Kaliningrad?
Most of Kaliningrad’s citizens have been to EU countries and seen the life there anyway.
That is not enough. If it were up to me, I would encourage the European Commission to allow visa-free travel to the EU for all Russian citizens officially resident in the Kaliningrad oblast—whether or not Russia sets up a simplified visa procedure for visiting Kaliningrad. That would be a difficult move.
I can vividly imagine it in today’s situation, when the subject of refugees angers most EU citizens.
There are only about 950,000 people in our region. Besides, as from 1 July 2016 only 68% of Kaliningrad’s residents are allowed to travel abroad. The rest do not even have a travel passport. [Since 2014, Russian servicemen, security officials, officials of the ministry of internal affairs and other government agencies are restricted in visiting countries that are not friendly with Russia.—JP] About a third of the 68% travel abroad. This can, of course, be explained by the decline of the rouble.