On November 16, Vladimir Putin decided to abruptly leave the G20 Summit in Brisbane, underlining the deepening of the rift between Russia and other world powers. The contrast with recent joint celebrations of World War II armistice gathering Putin and western heads of state, or with Gorbachev’s presence at the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last week, is striking. The confrontation between a liberal Europe and a centralised Russia once torn to pieces 25 years ago seems to have reached a new level.
Indeed, at the very same time commemorations of the fall of the Berlin wall peaked last week, the rumbling of military boots continued to shed a troubling light over the civil conflict in Ukraine. Even after the signing of the Minsk ceasefire protocol last September, fighting never totally stopped in Donetsk and the number of casualties in fights between local military groups supported by the former Cold War foes kept rising. While in Berlin, some rejoiced over the end of the Cold War last century, others in Mariupol, Luhansk or Kiev fear its return today.
On the one hand, Putin is able to make a convincing case that Crimea and the Eastern Ukrainian Republics should be attached to Russia on historical grounds, often referring to “Novorossiya”, the 19th century denomination of a Russian Tsar-controlled territory that spread beyond Odessa in Ukraine.
However, the very same logic can be used to challenge the Russian sovereignty over territories in the Pacific and Europe, from the Japanese claimed Kuril Islands to western Karelia, which most in Finland claim has been illegally occupied by Russia since 1939. The same argumentation fuels a decades long dispute with China over the north bank of Russia’s Far Eastern Amur River.
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Last week’s events have not been followed more closely than in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave within Europe, a narrow piece of land between Poland and Lithuania, where this contradiction is felt every day. This small territory, home to half a million inhabitants, has for centuries been under Prussian and later German control before being seized by Stalin in the last months of World War II.
Before its takeover by Russia, Koenigsberg – as it was then called – was an important industrial and trade asset for Germany but also an essential German intellectual and cultural centre, known for being the birthplace of Immanuel Kant and the residence of Hannah Arendt and poets such as Simon Dach and Agnes Miegel.
Putin can hardly argue that the Russian sovereignty over Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg is naturally derived from cultural and historical legitimacy. Immanuel Kant is one of the main father figures of the very European liberalism that Moscow rejects today. The political philosophy Kant theorised is based on two main principles: a republican government and a liberal participation in international organisation, which both are antithetic to Putin’s administration and strategy.
Interestingly, Kaliningrad is home today to a large Ukrainian community, the descendants of populations from Kiev or Donetsk encouraged to settle in the oblast under Stalin after the Germans were expelled. Despite constant attempts to silence the territories’ cultural traditions, the permanence of Prussian ruins next to the Soviet-inspired architecture and the vicinity of European countries have led to the creation a mixed society, both russophone and proud of its heritage as the former Prussian capital in the 1500s and 1600s. In the dispute over the denomination of the territory (Kaliningrad or Koenigsberg), its inhabitant have opted either for “Konig” or “Kant’grad”.
The current turmoil between Europe and Russia has had direct consequences for Kant’grad. An agreement signed in 2012 which allowed the inhabitants to cross into Poland for their daily groceries or consumption goods purchases without visa could be affected by the ramping up of European sanctions.
If the strength of separatist movements in Kaliningrad is often exaggerated and their structuration weak, some parties do gain traction such as the Baltic Republican Party.
Similarly, the territory has become very vulnerable following the food embargo imposed by Putin in August. The population now fears an increase in prices for daily commodities – and ongoing tensions in Ukraine and the isolation of Russia internationally should not alleviate their worries.
To compensate for the rising concerns over unemployment and inflation, the Kremlin opened its wallet despite its own economic turmoil. To break with the isolation, the Kremlin announced the construction of a $224 million port infrastructure in the seaport of Kaliningrad. Economic incentives and support from Moscow fall short however. In an essay published in Stoleti.ru, Vladimir Shulgin, a professor at the Baltic Federal University underlined the slow drift of Kaliningrad away from Russian nationalism and towards a more liberal and European identity. This tribune led to his expulsion from a university in which he had worked over 30 years.
Yet the slow increase of support to nationalist movements in Kaliningrad cannot be denied. If the strength of separatist movements in Kaliningrad is often exaggerated and their structuration weak, some parties do gain traction such as the Baltic Republican Party.
As Vladimir Titov – a Moscow based commentator – argues, “regionalism as a political direction has real prospects” in Kaliningrad, which clearly diverges from the centralisation of power in Moscow. While the Kremlin was very swift and determined to regain control over Crimea (and the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol), it will eventually have to face the growing discontentment and normative drift of its population in a faraway exclave, home to its Baltic Fleet. And this time the historical legitimacy will work against him.
Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.