Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Russian Missile Plan Gives a New European Trade Hub an Old Identity Crisis
By ELLEN BARRY, The New York Times
Published: November 27, 2008
KALININGRAD, Russia — This is what passes for humor in Kaliningrad these days: Iskander missile tourism. Dipping deep into his reservoir of black humor, Vladimir N. Abramov tries out this sales pitch for his region, a cold war garrison turned European trade hub that may, once again, become a staging ground for missiles pointed west.
“Attracting tourists to see an Iskander is a creative idea,” said Mr. Abramov, a political scientist. “Especially for the Poles. When it is flying toward them, they may not be able to see it. Come to Kaliningrad! Pose next to the missile which is going to kill you.”
Somewhere behind the joke is a real question about the future of Kaliningrad. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has devised a series of plans for this old military outpost, wedged on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland.
Former President Boris N. Yeltsin saw it as the Russian Hong Kong, a free trade zone to entice foreign investors. Mr. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir V. Putin, drew it closer to Moscow, planning a nuclear power plant that would export energy to Europe. As oil and gas wealth poured into Russia, more ideas emerged: Las Vegas-style gambling, for instance, and a constellation of luxury resorts.
The most recent idea arrived early this month, when President Dmitri A. Medvedev said Russia would stage short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if the United States proceeded with missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland.
The proposal is seen by many as rhetorical — a bargaining chip to use with a new American president. But if carried out, it would mark Kaliningrad’s first rearming against the West since the end of the Soviet Union, and another twist in an old identity crisis: Is it Russia’s window, open to Europe, or a turret for firing on it?
“The phrase ‘military stronghold’ was gradually forgotten here,” said Vadim Smirnov, a columnist for Kaliningradskaya Pravda, the region’s largest newspaper. “Experience shows that it was premature.”
The streetscape of Kaliningrad testifies to its peculiar status. Around the corner from generic Soviet monuments are cobblestone streets and red-roofed houses built before World War II, when it was a German city called Königsberg. Free trade policy has transformed this city into a huge duty free shop, crammed with fashionable restaurants and small businesses selling Italian handbags, French bath soaps, Polish light fixtures.
No less transformed are its people, who number around one million. Kaliningraders live more than 200 miles from the Russian border; they bring their grandchildren to Polish water parks and stock up at Ikea in Gdansk. Younger ones ski in Austria or shuttle goods to Central Europe. There is a deep vein of Russian patriotism here, as you would expect from a military town. But the pull of Europe is strong.
“We’re closer to Berlin than Moscow,” said Alexei Petrov, 39, a gym teacher who is driving a taxi between jobs.
Those links with Europe — culturally warm and economically central — have colored Kaliningraders’ reaction to Mr. Medvedev’s announcement. Lyudmila M. Anokha, the director of the Kaliningrad Zoo, found herself in an awkward position last month when she held a contest to name a new baby giraffe. One of the most popular suggestions was “Iskander,” but Ms. Anokha immediately saw the problem.
“The giraffe was delivered to us by the Berlin Zoo,” she said. “The giraffe came from the West. The Iskanders would be pointed toward the West. We at the zoo are beyond politics.”
The Iskander deployment is popular among Russians as a whole, who overwhelmingly see the American missile defense plan as a direct threat on their borders. A poll released last week by Moscow’s Public Opinion Foundation showed that 62 percent of respondents approved of the Iskander deployment if the missile defense facilities are built. Only 13 percent of them criticized the plans, with 4 percent dismissing them as “intimidation.”
The same stalwart support can be found in Kaliningrad. In 2004, when Poland and Lithuania joined the European Union, new visa and customs regulations stoked fears that Kaliningraders were being cut off behind a “blue curtain,” after the color of the union flag. Since then, those regulations have helped to deprive them of much of the freedom of movement that they enjoyed during the Yeltsin years. They already feel encircled, and the proposed missile defense site in Poland — an American base supplied with 10 interceptor missiles — stokes old passions.
“When someone threatens your country, every person must respond,” said Ms. Anokha, the zoo director. “We are not the ones unearthing the ax of war.”
In public, there has been little debate about the Iskander plan. For one thing, people here are accustomed to living near an arsenal — including nuclear-tipped missiles that were staged here during the cold war. The bigger threat, for many, was their removal: Since the 1980s, the number of troops here has been reduced to fewer than 20,000, from 320,000, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Rumors that the Baltic Fleet might be relocated met with “horror” in Kaliningrad, according to Mr. Abramov, the political scientist.
“The presence of troops was seen as a guarantee that Russia would not abandon us,” he said. “There are hotheads in Poland and Lithuania who would like to incorporate us. The Baltic Fleet calms them down.”
In private, however, many Kaliningraders say they are nervous about how the Iskander plan would affect them. The region’s economy is dependent on foreign tourists and foreign investment, to say nothing of the freedom to travel in Europe. Solomon I. Ginzburg, a deputy in Kaliningrad’s regional Parliament, said a poll of 1,800 of his constituents showed that 37 percent of them were “categorically against” the deployment of Iskanders, whereas only 20 percent supported it.
The most visible objections have come from Vitautas V. Lopata, an opposition deputy in the Parliament. Mr. Lopata, a wealthy businessman, publishes his own newspaper because he cannot gain coverage in the Kaliningrad press, “even if I pay for it,” he said.
In his most recent issue, he wrote that with Mr. Medvedev’s announcement, “we have, with our own hands, pushed Europe away from Russia,” ignoring Kaliningrad’s economic dependence on its neighbors. He said many citizens agreed with him, but kept their comments private, because “where can they express this opinion?”
“If you deploy missile forces, investment ends, tourism ends,” he said in an interview. “You don’t go visit your neighbor if he’s drunk and he’s holding a loaded gun.”
As people rushed past rows of shops, jewel-bright in a gathering snowstorm, most confessed that the missile deployment was not on their minds. Some had not even heard of it. But here and there was passionate opposition — from a grandmother selling five beets on a sidewalk, who said she would join street protests against the deployment, or from the taxi driver, Mr. Pavlov, who exclaimed with frustration, “Nobody is threatening anyone here.”
Natalya Gorobets, 41, who works for a tour agency, seemed to draw herself up with pride at the mention of the Iskanders, which she said “demonstrate that Russia is capable of giving an answer” to the United States. At the next desk, Viktoria Nishchenko, 28, was not so sure: She was thinking about travel.
“I just don’t want to go to a consulate and be told, ‘Oh, you’re from Kaliningrad. Stay there with your weapons,’ ” she said.
Posted by Rustam Vasiliev