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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Failing the Kaliningrad Test

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The visa controversy between Russia and the European Union over Kaliningrad has been a major source of public debate this summer, as the prospect of Lithuania and Poland joining the EU means that the Kaliningrad region will soon be surrounded by members of the Schengen zone -- a unified visa area with strict border controls that includes most EU member states. As a result, all Russians commuting between Kaliningrad and the Russian "mainland" would need to obtain Schengen transit visas.

Because of its obsession with NATO expansion -- first into former Warsaw Pact states and, probably in the near future, into former Soviet republics -- Moscow until recently largely ignored EU enlargement, despite warnings from experts that it would present an even greater challenge than developments in NATO.

When it finally realized that EU expansion eastward was inevitable, the Kremlin reacted hysterically. A steady stream of polemic from Moscow has branded the Kaliningrad transit visa requirements totally unacceptable, with politicians angrily declaring that the right of Russian citizens to move freely from one area of Russian territory to another cannot be made subject to decisions by EU bureaucrats. Government officials vowed that they would not allow Kaliningrad to become subject to an EU "blockade" and embarked on tough negotiations with the European Commission, bringing intense pressure on Brussels and select EU capitals -- Paris and Berlin in particular.

As a Russian citizen, I should and probably would welcome the government's determination to defend the interests of its people, if not for a number of other facts that come into play here.

First, the European Union is Russia's main trading partner -- in economic terms, far more important than either the United States or the CIS -- and cooperation with the EU is a question of vital strategic importance. Russia can never hope to regain a level of respect and influence proportional to its size and legacy without economic recovery. To a certain extent, this point has been addressed by President Vladimir Putin's administration, whose overriding concern has been with economic questions.

Good relations with the EU are of great value to Russia in many respects. Europe represents an attractive market for Russian goods, an immense source of investment and know-how, a useful broker in helping Russia gain WTO membership and the only real political alternative to U.S. hegemony. While it is the case that questions over Kaliningrad need to be resolved, they are minor compared to Russia's broader interests in the EU. Perhaps the use of threats and aggressive rhetoric as diplomatic tools is acceptable for a country attempting to pry concessions from a stronger side, but Russia has to realize that this is not the way relations based on partnership -- the very relations it needs with Europe -- are built.

Second, Kaliningrad is a trophy of war that was turned into a Russian province and military base. The average Russian does not think about it as the historic capital of Prussia, the home of Immanuel Kant and -- prior to World War II -- one of the most beautiful cities in the Baltic region. Any reminders of this period of the region's history were systematically destroyed after the war, the kind of behavior for which Russians castigate Nazi Germany.

All Russian history textbooks say that Hitler wanted to deprive the Soviet people of their cultural heritage by razing Leningrad -- the "cradle of Bolshevism" -- to the ground. These intentions are characterized as criminal. We, however, did the same thing to a German city and are now strangely free of any feelings of shame or guilt. The Germans make no claims for the return of K?nigsberg, yet Moscow's rhetoric about territorial integrity is almost paranoid.

The European Union has proven extremely effective as a peace project -- a framework within which national identities, and some of the conflicts they can generate, have been tempered by the consciousness of being European. The Kremlin fails to realize that the integration process in Europe also provides Russia with a unique opportunity ultimately to close some dirty and bloody chapters in our common history.

Instead, State Duma deputies are heading in the opposite direction, proposing that we pry open another sordid chapter from Soviet history -- the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact -- as a way of penalizing Lithuania for its lack of loyalty toward its former master.

Putin has defined the visa dispute with Brussels and Vilnius as a test for EU-Russia cooperation. I agree with his assessment, but in a sense entirely different from that inferred by Russian politicians and expected by the Russian public. The biggest thing at stake is not Moscow's ambition to settle the controversy on its own terms. The big issue consists of whether Russia can demonstrate on the international stage that it is becoming a normal country with appropriate and responsible political behavior. In particular, the big issue is whether Russia can move toward integration with Europe, where its history, culture and, most importantly, strategic interests show that it belongs.

It is unfortunate that Russia appears determined to fail this test. The Kaliningrad dispute will be settled, but Soviet political instincts will be shown to be alive and relatively well.

Igor Leshukov, director of the Institute of International Affairs, a private think tank in St. Petersburg, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.