By Paul Goble
Vladimir Putin’s push for the federalization of Ukraine is now echoing in Russian regions, nowhere more powerfully than in the exclave of Kaliningrad, where support for independence has declined in recent years from 7 percent to 4 percent. But, at the same time, calls by its residents for the oblast to be given “special status”—and that is what most Russians understand by “federalization”—have increased to 53 percent.
According to Russian analyst Pavel Pryannikov, who blogs at Ttolk.ru, “the ‘Russian spring’ in Crimea and in the eastern portion of Ukraine has shown the ordinary Russian that from now on the norm in his region and in his country could become” something very different than it has been in the past (ttolk.ru/?p=20658).
Indeed, he suggests, ordinary Russians now increasingly feel that in pursuit of what they believe is Kremlin-approved “federalization,” they might choose to seize government buildings, carry weapons, nationalize the property of the oligarchs, and decide the most important questions via referendum.
That is a lesson Moscow certainly does not want its own population to learn or even more to see manifested in the event of inter-ethnic conflicts or the next round of cutbacks in company towns. And it is one that would be especially worrisome in Kaliningrad, which has always been considered “one of the most separatist regions in Russia.”
In a poll conducted in 2003, “fewer than a quarter of Kaliningraders” did not want any significant political or economic changes in the status of their oblast, with about 7 percent calling for independence, 12 percent for its joint subordination to the European Union and Russia, 37 percent for a special economic status within Russia, and 11 percent for a special political one (ttolk.ru/?p=20658).
Support for any such fundamental shifts in the status of Kaliningrad fell until recently, almost certainly because Moscow did send more money to the region and because Vladimir Putin made it clear that his government would crack down hard on any calls for independence or joint subordination to the European Union.
But a poll taken in April, that is after the Crimean anschluss, shows that Kaliningraders are once again thinking about the status of their oblast and how it might or should be changed (ewkaliningrad.ru/news/community/3586277-opros-uroven-separatistskikh-nastroeniy-v-kaliningradskoy-oblasti-stremitsya-k-nulyu.html). On the one hand, Moscow certainly took pleasure in the fact that the percentage of Kaliningraders calling for independence fell by almost half to 4 percent. But on the other, the Russian government can hardly be pleased that “the number of Kaliningraders who consider that their region should have a special status—that is, [be a beneficiary of real] ‘federalization’”—is up sharply to 53 percent.
In commenting on the results, the New Kaliningrad portal said that “the level of so-called separatist attitudes in Kaliningrad oblast today is in fact falling toward zero,” a reflection of what it suggested “was a consolidation of the regional community around the notion that separation from Russia is an impermissible thought.” But at the same time, as Pryannikov points out, Kaliningraders do not want to be a region like any other but “a special region.” And as Putin and his ruling team have implied in Ukraine, that could open the way for independence or joining a neighboring country at some point in the future.
Consequently, while the face of Kaliningrad is changing under the impact of the Crimean annexation, the challenges that this non-contiguous Baltic region poses for Moscow are likely to grow. This is all the more so because, having taken the position it has pushed in Ukraine, the Putin regime is likely to be far less capable of preventing the growth of this new set of attitudes not only in Kaliningrad but in other predominantly ethnic-Russian regions of the country.