Kaliningrad's German ties raise concern

November 03, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Germans are renewing their connections with the former East Prussian capital of Koenigsberg, now Kaliningrad, an isolated Soviet naval center that is slowly being turned into a free-trade zone.

But new ties are awakening fears of revived German territorial claims in Eastern Europe, with some seeing the possibility of the small enclave being turned into a German economic and political center.

About half the size of Maryland and with 900,000 people, the Kaliningrad region belongs to the Russian republic but, with the independence of Lithuania, it now is geographically cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union.

Although Lithuanian leaders have guaranteed the Russians access, Kaliningrad leaders say they have to look outward -- especially to Germany -- to modernize and find a new role in the world.

"We hope that foreign capital and know-how in the form of joint ventures will turn Kaliningrad into a European Hong Kong," said Nikolaj Chromenko, former head of the Kaliningrad regional government, during a recent trip to Berlin.

Three main German groups have their eye on the region and especially on the city of 400,000:

* German business, which views it as an ideal location to penetrate the Baltic and western Russian markets.

* Thousands of former residents, who in increasing numbers are visiting their birthplace.

* Some of the 2 million ethnic Germans living in the Soviet Union, who hope to start an autonomous republic in the Kaliningrad region.

Thus far, at least 3,000 ethnic Germans have moved to Kaliningrad and, for the first time since 1945, the city has a German newspaper.

Part of East Prussia before World War II, the region has seen its German roots obliterated over the past 46 years. After being captured by Soviet forces in 1945, it was annexed, and the area's 1 million German citizens were driven off and replaced by Russian settlers. The city and area were renamed Kaliningrad after a crony of Soviet dictator Josef V. Stalin.

As one of the Soviet Union's few ice-free, deep-water ports, Kaliningrad was a key naval base and strictly off-limits to foreigners.

The rediscovery of the area's past has progressed to the point where a referendum is to be held on renaming the city Koenigsberg.

Last year, Russian reformers began plans to turn it into a special economic zone with tax breaks for foreign investors. Also, German exiles were allowed to visit their hometown for the first time in 45 years.

But real interest only started after this year's failed Soviet coup.

German interest in Kaliningrad has centered on the efforts of F. Wilhelm Christians, former spokesman for the Deutsche Bank's board of directors and a pioneer in improving German-Soviet relations.

Germany's focus has been on promoting trade, Mr. Christians said. A plan by the German Economics Ministry to create a free-trade zone in the Baltic Sea, for example, could include Kaliningrad.

Mr. Christians said he also has had to make clear that Germany is not interested in "re-Germanizing" the region, a fear that belies some of the local optimism about German involvement in the region.

Polish officials, for example, said they are concerned that turning the region into an autonomous German republic of the Soviet Union with strong connections to Germany could lead to a repeat of pre-World War II conditions, when northern Poland was caught between two parts of Germany.

If Moscow were to approve a resettlement of ethnic Germans, Poland would lodge the "strongest protests," government spokeswoman Malgorzata Niezabitowska said.

Assurances of Germany's good intentions are not helped by right-wing extremists, who placed well in a recent German state election.

The national Zeitung newspaper, for example, compared Kaliningrad to the Kuril Islands in the Pacific, which also were occupied after World War II by the Soviet Union and which Japan wants back before it agrees to provide aid.

More harmless are the estimated 10,000 tourists from Germany -- more than double last year's total.

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