The World Cup in Kaliningrad: Potemkin Village or real change?

Moscow’s handling of Kaliningrad in recent years makes it no surprise World Cup fans are set to venture in from Poland for matches only rather than stay there.

This June will be special for Kaliningrad: Russia’s westernmost region is playing host to part of the FIFA World Cup. This is a unique opportunity for it to break deeply rooted stereotypes dating back to the 1990s. However, the ostentatiously gorgeous façade erected in Kaliningrad will not hide the trends that have afflicted the region for years.

A feast in time of plague?

Kaliningrad right now is place of excitement in anticipation of the first game. But the truth is that its old economic fragility has not gone away; in fact, it has grown. Where once there was significant cross-border exchange and cooperation with neighbouring countries like Poland, now this has shrunk significantly, and economic reliance on the federal centre has increased.

Local conservative forces have unleashed a crusade, and they enjoy explicit support from above in this effort

The decision to bring Kaliningrad’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to an end in April 2016 felt like something of a bad joke on the part of the Kremlin. The following year, Vladimir Putin signed a decree that, in effect, reinstated the SEZ, yet conditions remain disappointing and unfriendly to business. This situation was best expressed by Kaliningrad entrepreneur Stephano Vlakhovych when he remarked “we are going to kick the bucket!” as a result of the decision. Kaliningrad finds it increasingly difficult to trade, and the magic of the much-praised Eurasian Economic Union in not working – at least not for this part of Russia. A decision by Moscow to cut subsidies for transporting goods from Kaliningrad to the mainland has stunned local businesses. Furthermore, Belarus has increased how much it charges for transit across its territory, and it is now twice as expensive for goods from Kaliningrad to travel in Belarus than in Russia.

The authorities’ response came quickly: local government has tightened its grip over businesses and entrepreneurs, threatening to close some of them down. With complaints skyrocketing, times are looking difficult for local businesses, and the World Cup will amount to little more than a short distraction.  

“Witch hunt”, “fifth column” and “creeping Germanisation”

An ideological struggle accompanies Kaliningrad’s economic woes. Following the closure of the German-Russian House after its designation as a “foreign agent”, ultra-conservative local media launched an aggressive campaign to find traces of an “oblast drifting west”, one which is, presumably, coordinated by a “fifth column”. Film series, roundtables, and conferences have resulted in a gruesome diagnosis: “foreign agents are fostering the spirit of neo-Nazi ideology in the Russian trophy-region”. This frenzy led to the local mass media and conservatives directing their ire against Baltic Federal University professor Anna Alimpieva, who stands accused of such mortal sins in today’s Russia as “inflaming separatism”, “liberalisation of public opinion”, and “promotion of LGBT ideals”. The next stage of the mass hysteria began with local governor Anton Alikhanov stating that “there is no Kaliningrad identity” and this concept is “being promoted from outside”. Ultra-conservative portals NewsBalt and REGNUM went further, directly levelling accusations of attempts to “strangulate the oblast” and “fostering anti-Russian forces” against Germany and the United States.

Local conservative forces have unleashed a crusade, and they enjoy explicit support from above in this effort. But this is hardly the way to make Kaliningrad a more attractive destination, either for foreigners, or investors from abroad.

The “fortress” is dead. Long live the “bubble”!

Since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia has embarked on a further militarisation of Kaliningrad. The main European concern here is the “Iskander-M” mobile short-range nuclear-capable ballistic missile complexes, which have a striking range of 450 kilometres (and the actual distances achievable may be much more than officially reported). Russia has now decided to deploy the Iskanders in Kaliningrad on a permanent basis, and it made a point of showing off this formidable weapon to the public at a Victory Day parade on 9 May this year. The presence of the Iskander has effectively transformed Kaliningrad into Russia’s most advanced multi-layered anti-access/area-denial “bubble” capable of both defensive and offensive potential. This is even before mentioning the S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft weapons system, the K-300P Bastion-P, and the 3K60 Bal coastal defence missile systems. Growth in military might aside, one should expect new round of sabre-rattling, with Kaliningrad reprising its role of “regional scarecrow” – not something commensurate with expectations for the World Cup.

Russia’s World Cup, Polish winners

Kaliningrad Stadium is arguably the second most expensive arena built for the tournament: its actual cost is also said to have doubled because of corruption. It is, however, unlikely that this huge expenditure will pay off. Some prognoses have named Kaliningrad as one of the main World Cup beneficiaries, which may be true though only in comparison with much of the rest of Russia. In fact, the Polish city of Gdansk could end up the winner here: foreign tourists find staying in Poland cheaper and safer and are set to go into Kaliningrad only to see the matches, and then leave again.

This may seem disappointing. But given Moscow’s handling of Kaliningrad over recent years – harming its economy and using the exclave as something to scare the West with – this missed World Cup opportunity is barely a surprise.

Sergey Sukhankin is a native of Kaliningrad and a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC.  He holds a PhD from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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