Lead: Russia continues to seek a beneficial transit solution that would connect its mainland with the Kaliningrad Oblast. One idea which has been repeatedly discussed since the fall of the Soviet Union is the “Suwałki Corridor” – a 99-kilometre-long transport connection linking Hrodna to Kaliningrad through Poland.
The problem of a reliable connection between Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast (located on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland) and the Russian mainland began to be discussed in Moscow at the start of the 1990s. For Lithuania, which re-gained its independence in 1991, the most important security issue at that time was the withdrawal of Soviet troops from its territory and the regulation of transit to and from Kaliningrad. Equally important was the issue of the three Baltic harbours (Klaipeda, Kaliningrad and Riga) and who would get the region’s main trade terminal. For Moscow, the issue of transiting goods and military between the two territories was vitally important. Without a secure link between the enclave and mainland Russia, its interests were threatened.
On many occasions, some radical proposals were made. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Russian member of the Duma known for his outspoken populist rhetoric, proposed the Kremlin “dig a tunnel underneath Lithuania”. Other politicians and experts also demanded that authorities negotiate simplified conditions for crossing the border (e.g. not subject to border controls) with the EU. Lithuania, however, refused to allow “sealed railway wagons” to pass through its borders without inspection. And in Brussels, voices suggesting building extraterritorial corridors were considered absurd and senseless.
S: In search of a solution
One project, dubbed the “Suwałki Corridor”, emerged as an alternative to Lithuania’s strict transport arrangements. This idea’s main promotion came from Vadim Smirnov, a Russian analyst from Kaliningrad, who based it on reports from former chair of the Kaliningrad Oblast Council – Yuri Shemonov. In late 1990 Shemonov met with Mikhail Gorbachev and Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov to propose a 99-kilometre-long transport corridor between Hrodna and Kaliningrad (through Poland). The proposal could have been a result of analysing the situation in Lithuania as well as a belief that there was a potential of military conflict. A transfer route through Poland thus seemed like a safer alternative. Shemonov’s proposal called for the construction of a highway, railroad and network of connections. Interestingly, while Ryzhkov supported Shemonov’s proposal, Gorbachev rejected it, recommending that both politicians “stop spreading panic”.
Between 1993 and 1996 the Russian side returned to Shemonov’s idea, supporting the notion to build transit links from Hrodna to Gusev (Poland) and on to Kaliningrad. This issue was brought up by experts at the Diplomatic Academy from the Russian ministry of foreign affairs. They indicated that this idea of a transport corridor through Poland had already been considered in 1993. With the assistance of the authorities in Minsk, Russians began pursuing an agreement regarding trans-border cooperation between the border regions of the Hrodna Oblast and Poland’s Suwałskie Voivodship. These agreements were not warmly welcomed by Poland. The historical relations and level of mistrust between the two states obviously played a big role in Poland’s response.
A transit route through Lithuania, especially for military and equipment (as Russia’s simultaneously withdrew from East Germany) became a serious source of tension between Moscow and Vilnius starting in the early 1990s. Russians needed to find an alternative for transferring cargo between the Kaliningrad Oblast and the rest of the Russian Federation. A serious alternative then taken into consideration was the construction of ferries and other naval routes that would connect Kaliningrad’s harbours with other Russian Baltic ones. Yet, the cost of constructing a sea lane between Kaliningrad and St Petersburg, Russia’s other Baltic warm water port, would be too expensive, especially considering the amount of transit cargo as well as the poor state of the harbours’ infrastructure.
In addition, Kaliningrad’s harbour was not considered a major transport hub for shipping and trading goods. Only eliminating competition could turn things to Russia’s advantage. One estimate showed that the sum of the account balances in Soviet Baltic harbours was around 92.5 million tonnes in 1988. Of this quantity, 81 per cent was in the three Baltic republics: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. When independence was regained, the situation did not change. In 1998 the Baltic states, which were no longer under Moscow’s auspices, continued to have the largest regional trade balance with 79 per cent of trade and trans-shipment taking place in Klaipeda, Riga and Tallinn. Meanwhile, trade in Kaliningrad throughout the 1990s decreased further by several percentage points.
S: Seeking benefits
The Kaliningrad Oblast also suffered from the underdevelopment of its railway network and an obsolete road infrastructure. Hence, it was assumed that attracting foreign capital or European funds would help solve its severe problems. Russia began to become more engaged in trans-European multi-party projects. After two conferences, the first held in Prague in 1991 and the second in Cyprus in 1994, it seemed that Moscow was pushing to develop a transport link from the South to the North and from the East to the West, while including Kaliningrad’s interests in a beneficial direction. Other platforms of dialogue with Western Europe included a series of initiatives within various EU frameworks such as TACIS (Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States), Poland and Hungary Assistance for Restructuring Economies (PHARE) and “Euroregions”, where attracting capital and engaging external financing for implementing road and transportation projects was important for Moscow. The so-called “Cyprus Transport Corridors” (especially the one connecting Via Baltica and Via Hanzeatica with a road system from Kyiv and Minsk to Kaunas, Klaipeda and west to Kaliningrad) would help solve some of Russia’s problems. The 1997 Agreement with the EU signed in Helsinki by the Russian Federation called for a significant amount of resources from the West. Kaliningrad was seen as having the potential to become a transit and logistics hub for Russia. Hence, it seemed logical that a deal to create an additional corridor through Poland and Belarus should be introduced. The idea was to refer once again to the 1993 Suwałki Corridor initiative.
In purely economic terms, the Suwałki Corridor could be seen as Russia’s idea to link Kaliningrad Oblast with the rest of Russia and secure its own interests. However, a serious deficit of good and stable economic relations with Russia put the full purpose of such a transit link into doubt.
S: Small border traffic
After Lithuania regained its independence in 1991, the transit rules through its territory initially remained unchanged. Until 2003, any document issued in the Soviet Union or a Russian passport that confirmed the citizenship of the Russian Federation and residence in the Kaliningrad Oblast was considered binding and was recognised in Lithuania, allowing transit without many complications. After 2003, however, as a result of Lithuania’s accession to the EU, the rules changed based on an agreement that was made between the Russian Federation and the EU (signed in November 2002). Since that time, documents allowing transport (by rail, free of charge and by road costing five euros) are issued by Lithuania. Since Poland and Lithuania’s accession to the Schengen zone, visas issued to citizens of the Russian Federation have changed once again, from being free of charge to paid (35 euros for a one-entry visa). Poland, without consultations with Vilnius, introduced small border traffic in 2010 between the Kaliningrad Oblast and Poland. Lithuania has withheld from such a move.
Kaliningrad officials complained that Lithuanians were increasing prices for the transfer of goods to and from Kaliningrad each year, while prices for transport to Klaipeda’s harbour remained the same. In Russia’s view, this created dishonest competition, one which the Russian government should not be indifferent to. It may seem that while designing the “Suwałki Corridor”, Russia was less interested in offending Poland. The issue at stake was more to win its battle with Lithuania. However, they also showed a lack of sensitivity and imagination as to reactions towards such projects among Poles.
Today it seems Russia is still looking for a beneficial transit link that would connect its mainland with the Kaliningrad Oblast. Yet, it is important to bear in mind some key facts as well as the chronology of specific activities regarding this. In 1994 a project called “On the Reconstruction of a Road Section from Gusev-Gołdap-Hrodna” began. It was already noticed then that the solution of this issue would require special international agreements with Poland, including an agreement on transit conditions. Since the Belarusian side would also play a key role in this project, Russia decided that signing the agreements could take place at the local levels.
The Russian ambassador in Warsaw at the time, Yuri Kashlev, while responding to questions in the monthly magazine Mieżdunarodnaja Żizń, said it would be most beneficial for Russia to build a Gusev-Gołdap-Suwałki-Hrodna corridor. The ambassador confirmed that his embassy received the task from the Kremlin to open a border crossing in Gołdap, Poland, based on bilateral agreements. The next step was to set up a transport corridor so that all goods should not be transferred through Lithuania. Kashalev’s statements were accompanied by numerous public declarations by Polish local authorities who also welcomed these developments. The Polish government appointed a proxy responsible for the coordination of activities between Poland and the Kaliningrad Oblast.
S: April fools
For the authorities of the Suwałki Voivodship, a new border crossing at Lipszczany meant an increase in investment attractiveness and trade as well as labour market improvements. However, the signing of the 1996 agreement between the Suwałki governor (Viovode) and the governor of the Hrodna Oblast in Belarus brought about some serious political aftershocks. The Polish press published articles stating the “Suwałki Corridor has already been drawn”. They quoted Boris Yeltsin’s words during his visit to Belarus when he agreed with the Belarusian president, Alyaskandr Lukashenka, on the rules building connections through Poland to Kaliningrad. A Polish satirical leftist weekly NIE (Poland was at that time ruled by a post-communist government) published an article on April 1st 1996 in which the whole issue was framed as an April fools’ joke. At the same time it was speculated that the corridor could be a “gift” from the Russian prime minister to the Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski for the latter’s unwilling attitude towards Russian business. NIE journalist Piotr Gadzinowski created an ironic science fiction hypothesis that Poland and Belarus agreed on the exchange of some territory; Poland was to receive the left-bank of Hrodna and a piece of the Vistula spit. The joke was, nonetheless, treated quite seriously by Hrodna residents. In a matter of days, the left side of the city’s real estate prices sky rocketed.
It is worth adding that in 1995 Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin visited Warsaw. An agreement was then reached on building the Yamal gas pipeline. The contract’s value was 2.5 billion US dollars. It was foreseen that one of the pipelines would go straight to Kaliningrad. An agreement was also signed to annul mutual debt in both western and Russian currencies between Poland and the Russian Federation. Many politicians and businessmen in Warsaw were expecting huge profits from these deals. In this atmosphere, the transit corridor to Hrodna seemed like an additional benefit.
An analysis of available materials and information today allows us to draw a conclusion that the favourable climate for the transit corridor through Poland seemed to be bringing the implementation phase closer to reality. Road construction had already begun on the Russian side. In Gołdap, a new expensive beltway was set up as well as a modern border crossing. Similarly, preparations for road works were taking place on the Belarussian side, in the Hrodna Oblast. As part of the Russian Federation’s and Belarus’s “division of labour”, Minsk took the responsibility for pressuring Poland on the “Suwalki Corridor” issue.
S: Unknown Europe
In 2001 the vice prime minister of Belarus, Leonid Kozik, confirmed the fear of an “approaching threat” for the Kaliningrad Oblast; in other words, an “encirclement” of this Russian enclave by the EU, after Poland and Lithuania joined it. At that time Kozik wrote: “there is an increasing need to create one more alternative route through Poland. It is only 80 kilometres long. I am not saying that building a railway line branch, an energy line or a modern connection line will bring significant benefits to everybody: Russia, Poland and Belarus.”
The issue in question was not only transport infrastructure, but also projects that would allow Poland to get consent to open a new border crossing. To avoid political associations, the project’s first steps were aimed at building “a tourist ring”. It was meant to connect the regions of Druskininkai (Lithuania), Hrodna (Belarus) and Augustów (Poland). This project received a “European seal of approval” as part of Lithuania’s infrastructure and Poland was being financed by EU structural funds. A project called “Unknown Europe” was meant to connect parts of the Augustowski Channel in three countries (around 100 km in total). The Belarusian side was particularly engaged in making sure this project would be implemented. The Russian side supported rebuilding the tourist trail around the Augustowski Channel and helped finance some tourism projects and hotels in the Hrodna region.
Another important step in reviving tourism included discrete attempts to set up a border crossing in the Augustów area. Belarusian authorities insisted the parties “create the right conditions”, which meant investments aimed at developing transportation and tourist infrastructure on both sides of the border. To help service the modest level of tourism, Warsaw agreed to establish a Belarusian consulate in Augustów in 2008. The Belarusian consul’s task was not only to issue visas, but also improve the active development of the Suwałki Cooridor project under the guise of the tourist ring. The Belarusian side stressed a wide range of historical and sentimental aspects of the project. One focus was the positive associations the region had, especially the “Polish nostalgia for the Borderlands”. These activities referenced the historical Grand Duchy and the emotions of the older generation of Poles who remember kayaking along the Augustowski channel.
Despite the 2014 developments in Ukraine and the growing threat Russia plays in the region, the “Suwałki Corridor” still comes back in different forms and initiatives. We can only hope that behind current trans-border projects, tourism and small border trade, there are no serious geopolitical plans on the part of our great neighbour, something that could be a threat to peace and security in this part of Europe.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Mariusz Maszkiewicz is —–
The “Suwałki Corridor” initiative emerged as an alternative to strict Lithuanian transport arrangements between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia.
Kaliningrad was seen as having the potential to become a transit and logistics hub for Russia. Hence, it seemed logical that a deal to create an additional corridor through Poland and Belarus should be introduced.
To avoid political associations, the projects’ first steps were aimed at creating “a tourist ring”.