BHHRG

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The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Kaliningrad: Black hole or black propaganda?
HITS: 30301 | 18-02-2003, 23:27 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 7)

The Baltic port city of Kaliningrad is the former capital of East Prussia, Königsberg; the surrounding territory is the northern half of that historic German province. In 1945, Königsberg was captured by the Soviet army and subsequently incorporated into the Soviet Union as part of the Russian Federation of the USSR and Kaliningrad became the headquarters of the USSR’s Baltic fleet. However, the United States and some legal scholars in the West have, thus far, refused to accept its de jure incorporation into either the USSR or Russia, leaving open a possible change in its future status.

Approximately 1 million people live in the Kaliningrad oblast, 425,000 in the city itself. Among them are c. 25,000 members of the Baltic Sea Fleet, the remains of the USSR’s once-great naval apparatus. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Kaliningrad found itself an outpost – an exclave of Russian territory, sandwiched between newly independent Lithuania, and Poland. Poland joined NATO in 1999; Lithuania will follow suit in 2004; both countries are set to join the EU that year. Kaliningrad will, therefore, become an ‘island’ within the European Union.

For years now, journalists and commentators have been describing Kaliningrad (both the city and its surrounding region) in lurid language. There is “run-down housing” and a “dilapidated infrastructure”[1]. It is “dismal and unkempt” with “ghastly Soviet-style buildings in an advanced stage of decay”[2] Perhaps the harshest example to date was an article entitled “Russia’s hell-hole enclave” by the EU’s foreign policy commissioner, Chris Patten, which appeared in the British press two years ago.[3]

Patten’s intervention comes as no surprise as the EU has taken the lead, attacking Kaliningrad in the most undignified terms. The last time the former Governor of Hong Kong participated in a democratic election was in 1992 when he lost his parliamentary seat in Bath to the Liberal Democrats; now he pontificates from the safety of an un-elected sinecure. Chris Patten and his EU colleagues speak about this Russian port city - once compared with Hong Kong as a potential free trade zone - in an insulting and derogatory way. In scores of speeches and statements, they have portrayed Kaliningrad as if it were nothing but a source of smuggling, AIDS, and human waste. [4] With Patten’s encouragement, EU officials have called the city “a black hole.”[5] The Swedish Prime Minister, Goran Person has said, “Kaliningrad is heavily polluted. There are illnesses there like AIDS and tuberculosis. There is atomic waste. You find almost every imaginable problem in Kaliningrad.”[6] Elmar Brok, the veteran Christian Democrat member of the European Parliament, and a great activist when it comes to bemoaning Germany’s territorial losses in the East, said, “The whole region is a catastrophe. Criminality is higher there than anywhere else in Russia, the regional government is in the hands of the Mafia, the number of AIDS cases is the highest in Europe”[7]; while one book, published by the pro-EU institute, The Federal Trust, gives an upper estimate of 24,000 for the number of AIDS cases in the Kaliningrad region.[8]

Much local media in Kaliningrad – some of which is supported by grants from Western NGOs like Germany’s Staatliche Rundfunk Gesellschaft – also inform local people about their “plight”, claiming that living standards and wages are higher in the neighbouring Baltic States. Television is pro-American and pro-EU – anyone opposing their policies is labelled as a ‘Communist’. Similarly, university students (who also receive support from Euro-Atlantic sponsors like the Open Society Institute) have been strongly propagandised to believe that their lot is much worse than their soon-to-be EU member Baltic brothers.

On rare occasions an alternative voice is heard, like this one:

“Everything I read about Kaliningrad stressed what a cesspool of crime, corruption, poverty and AIDS it is," says reporter Fred Weir. "That seems to be the European picture of the area." But, since Fred lives in Moscow, he has a different perspective. "By Russian standards, it's a really nice region. Yes, they have problems, but their average wages are higher than in other parts of Russia. People drive foreign cars, the supermarkets are much better stocked than in most of Russia's provincial cities, people are well dressed, and you don't see beggars in the streets. Yes, there are some real horror stories in Russia, but Kaliningrad isn't one of them."[9]

With all this bad publicity in mind, members of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group visited Kaliningrad in the days following Christmas 2002 to see who was right – Mr. Weir or Chris Patten. BHHRG travelled by car, bus and train in order to better understand the situation on the ground for those who, in the near future, would face visa restrictions on the their journeys between Kaliningrad and Russia proper.

The contrast between Kaliningrad and Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, could not be greater. Whereas Lithuania, like the other Baltic states, has the dead air of a country from which there has been mass emigration and where only the Mafia and drunkards remain, Kaliningrad is a bustling and lively city. The centre of Vilnius is full of expensive shops selling Italian designer clothes, in which you very rarely see a single client but the streets of Kaliningrad are filled with small shops selling cheapish items which locals can actually buy. Whereas there is little traffic in Vilnius, still fewer people walking on the streets, Kaliningrad has traffic jams and the pavements are thronged with shoppers. (The BHHRG was in each city in the run up to its own Christmas season - Catholic in Vilnius and Orthodox in Kaliningrad). In fact, the number of cars in Kaliningrad has trebled in the 1990s, while the enclave – which the EU presents as the poorest in Russia – is in fact a net importer of labour, especially from neighbouring Poland and Lithuania: Poles and Lithuanians regularly come to Kaliningrad to find work, especially in the construction industry. And far from being “crime-ridden”, as the EU documents all claim, there are no beggars and very little evidence of the Mafia, whereas in Vilnius casinos and clubs offering “erotic entertainment” seem to be the main nocturnal economic activity, and begging is commonplace as is scavenging in dustbins even in the centre of the city, near where George W. Bush spoke on 24th November, 2001.

It should be added that many of the rural areas of the Kaliningrad oblast are poor, following the collapse of agriculture in 1992 and also because Moscow has ignored its infrastructure for the past 10 years, but no poorer than the Lithuanian countryside. But, there are still attractive, small former-German towns – like the resorts of Svetlogorsk and Zelenogradsk (formally Cranz) – with many fin-de-siècle buildings and a lovely location on the Baltic coast near the beginning of its dramatic sand spit. Places like this (visited by BHHRG in December, 2002) could well become decent ecological tourist destinations (as they were a century ago) were they not constantly the butt of ignorant and ill-intentioned criticism [10]

And what about the AIDS? The British Helsinki Human Rights Group visited the Immunopathology Centre, the main immunology centre in Kaliningrad, which co-ordinates treatment and therapy for all of the AIDS and HIV cases in the oblast (region). In the 10 years or so the centre has existed, some 3,900 people have been registered there, for instance for HIV tests. Of these, 220 were found to be HIV positive, including 19 children. A total of 47 people contracted AIDS, of which 36 have now died. This means that the total number of people suffering from AIDS in Kaliningrad is not 24,000, the upper figure given by the “experts” quoted in the EU-sponsored book, but only 9. (The “expert” in question was the Lithuanian foreign minister.) Far from being the worst region in Russia for AIDS, Kaliningrad is in fact in 18th position. Its rate of full-blown AIDS is below that in many comparably-sized EU cities. Is there something Chris Patten and the EU’s health officials could learn from the anti-HIV/AIDS policies in Kaliningrad?

As for drug addiction, BHHRG interviewed Sergei Frolov the main doctor at the Narcological Clinic in Kaliningrad who said that much of the data that appeared in the Western media about drug addiction in the oblast was coloured by political considerations. Officially, there are 2000 registered drug addicts (0.2% of the oblast’s population). As elsewhere in the world, registration is not the whole story and Dr. Frolov thought that up to 2% of the population may use/have used some kind of narcotic substance, including soft drugs. The main drugs used are a home-made heroin substitute, known locally as “kompot”, amphetamines, ecstasy tablets and methadone. The amphetamine comes from St. Petersburg and Poland; the methadone from Lithuania. So, much of the drug abuse is fuelled from the neighbouring “reformed” EU candidate countries.

But these determined attacks on Kaliningrad’s image all have a clear purpose: to present the territory as highly problematic, in order to provide a justification for the EU’s determination to subject it to an incipient blockade which will lead to its decoupling from Russia and the conjuring up a new identity. Several proposals have been put forward as to what this should be – another Baltic state? part of the EU itself? a return to Germany? But none of these solutions have gained resonance, despite efforts by some to show that there is such a thing as a separate Kaliningrad “identity” or, alternatively, a return to the Germanic past with the re-adoption of the name “Königsberg”. A more “European” solution proposed for the oblast is for it to become a kind of Euro-protectorate under the aegis of a body like the Council of Europe.

The language used to discuss Kaliningrad’s future is itself futuristic. According to the ‘experts’, the region is to be a kind of “laboratory of Russia’s political integration with Europe” … a “pilot region” according to Kaliningrad Duma member, Solomon Ginzburg.[11] “Moscow’s strategic aim should be making Kaliningrad a Euroregion that could be integrated into the European economic, legal and humanitarian space”[12] European institutions have been active in Kaliningrad for some time, in particular the TACIS programme which targets the environment, energy and (inevitably) AIDS as ongoing projects. Needless to say, the major beneficiaries of these activities – one of which involves the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of “training trainers” – are German, Swedish and Danish companies. Leaving aside the worthlessness of much of this, the presence of organizations like TACIS which has spent €39.9m. over the past ten years, acts as a local honey pot around which hungry local bees buzz to line their own pockets. TACIS/PHARE has been fingered in the past for corrupt practices in the former Soviet Union and like other EU programmes it is inadequately audited...[13]


[1] Nick Coleman “Exclave’s future hangs in air”, The Baltic Times, 23-29th January 2003,

[2] Richard J. Krickus, The Kaliningrad Question, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002,

[3] Chris Patten, “Russia’s hell-hole enclave”, The Guardian, 7/4/01,

[4] See for instance his speech on 6th March 2002 in Svetlogorsk, http://www.europaworld.org/issue72/thechallenges8302.htm,

[5]http://www.russiajournal.com/print/russia_news_28963.html. Another typical report can be seen at http://www.worldbank.org/transitionnewsletter/octnovdec01/pgs41-42.htm,

[6] Süddeutsche Zeitung, 18th January 2001,

[7] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 29th May 2002,

[8] See edited by James Baxendale, Stephen Dewar and David Gowan, The EU and Kaliningrad, (Federal Trust: London, December 2000),

[9] Fred Weir “Russia Faces EU’s New Frontier”, Christian Science Monitor, 23/7/02, 

[10] Nick Coleman (op. cit.) describes Zelenogradsk as a place where the buildings “are now collapsing, the streets are potholed, and most work is in the grey economy”. Despite a few Soviet eyesores, BHHRG found Zelenogradsk to be a charming place; 

[11]Rossbalt, 8/1/2003,

[12] Alexander Sergounin “The Russian post-Communist discourse on Northern Europe: A chance for region-building?” Nizhny Novgorod Linguistic University http://www.bd.lst.se/dimensionen/rapport/16.pdf,

[13] http://www.cbss.st/documents/cbsspresidencies/10russian/dbaFile1218.doc.

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