In one of our OSW reports, we called the Kaliningrad region a ‘captive island’, referring to its geographical and partly mental separation from the rest of Russia, combined with the tight control Moscow exercises over its political, economic and security spheres. In the distant 1990s, a time of regional autonomies, Kaliningrad enjoyed a considerable amount of self-governance. Its governors originated from local politics, its residents referred to both Russian and European identities and, pioneered in mobility and grassroots activity, it cherished cooperation with its European neighbourhood. However, in 2000 Moscow launched a policy of unification and centralization that was often implemented at the expense of the regions’ specifics and economic potential. In case of Kaliningrad, it took a decade, but eventually this region that once stood out in terms of its uniqueness and autonomy, gradually succumbed to the federal ‘grip’.
Today Kaliningrad no longer enjoys any significant political autonomy: its governors are designated in the Kremlin, elected in non-competitive elections and become Moscow’s caretakers in the region. Security and military agencies, whose leverage is even greater than the governor’s, expand and modernize their infrastructure in the region, considered to be of strategic importance. The region’s financial dependency on Moscow has increased, both in terms of transfers from the federal budget and the presence of large companies, linked to the Kremlin (Gazprom, Rostec, Russian Railways, Stroygazmontazh). The rules of the Special Economic Zone in the region have been changed and now favour big businesses, often connected to Moscow. The region, once import-oriented and open to external cooperation, is now much more economically isolated and sustained by federal funding. Social and civic vitality, so evident a decade ago in the form of street protests, a high level of entrepreneurship and an array of grassroots initiatives, seems to have receded. Political opposition keeps a low profile – from ‘dinosaurs’ like Solomon Ginzburg (once an outspoken advocate of Kaliningrad’s European path) to Navalny-led young generation oppositionists who became subject to repressions.
The region still hosts some foreign investments, carries out cross-border cooperation with Poland and Lithuania and offers electronic visasbut its overall openness to foreign cooperation has decreased, and its military character has been strengthened.
Ironically, contrary to its usual regional policy that boiled down to centralization, in the times of pandemic the Kremlin grants the regional governments ‘the autonomy to cope’. The regions were tasked with deciding what lockdown measures were needed and with providing the necessary financial support. The cost of this ‘sudden autonomy’ is their full and personal responsibility, as President Vladimir Putin stressed on several occasions.
Similarly to other regions, Kaliningrad’s regional government is trying both to manage the pandemic and to conceal the gravity of the situation. The official rhetoric was first pointed towards the external origins of the plague – presenting Kaliningrad as the region surrounded by COVID-infected Poland and Lithuania, attacked by a virus brought in by its residents from their trips abroad. Interestingly, China was rarely mentioned as the source of the epidemic threat.
In its struggle with COVID-19, Kaliningrad is not unique – according to official data (often disputed) it is placed in the second half of the regional chart. The ‘patient zero’ was detected on a symbolic and much loved Russian holiday – 8 March. Kaliningrad introduced a state of ‘increased readiness’ and lockdown measures on March 16 – and it also became the first Russian region to gradually end the lockdown starting April 29. The problem that all Russian regions seem to share is the shortage of healthcare facilities and the scarcity of budget support for citizens and SMEs. In Kaliningrad, for the past month only 6% of crisis management funds were issued. Many businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy, which may be fatal to Kaliningrad’s economy, as it has the largest share of SME in its GRP among all Russian regions. Impoverishment translates into growing pessimism, anxiety and a surge of petty thefts from grocery stores. The public and independent journalists have limited confidence in regional statistics (such as excessively optimistic mortality indicators), the quality of tests or the pandemic spread in the army stationing in the region.
As has happened in the past, the development of Russian regions, especially the ones with distinct specifics like Kaliningrad, heavily depends on the situation on Moscow. The current pandemic is a time of global uncertainty that may revamp social, economic and political models worldwide. Russia already faces the adverse consequences of the lockdown and oil price drop. But more may be to come. Personalist regimes like Putin’s are based on a specific social contract: rights and freedoms in exchange for stability and welfare, especially in troubled times. What citizens and entrepreneurs see now is the state that fails to deliver and stays extremely tight-fisted towards businesses and those who lost their jobs. Instead, the president tells the regions to cope by themselves. Putin’s ratings have already dropped to a historic low and his earlier plans of amending the constitution to allow him to rule until 2036 may require additional efforts to be validated. Should all this affect the stability of Putin’s rule, should Moscow’s grip over regions loosen, we might face another revival of regional autonomies and their attempts to regain the powers they once enjoyed. Kaliningrad, which Moscow turned into a strategic forefront, may once again choose to prioritise its economic development and open up to its EU neighbourhood.
 We can come across different data, and the Russian-language source seems to be much more adequate: 25% according to https://ria.ru/20190408/1552464122.html; and 70% according to: “The World Today Series 2019-2020. Nordic, Central and South-Eastern Europe”, Wayne C. Thompson, p. 181. (quote: “Up to 70% of Kaliningrad’s GDP is generated by medium- and small-sized enterprises”).
 Kaliningrad stands out against other Russian regions in mortality statistics (first quarter of 2020): its indicators are thrice as better as the average, the number of deaths in the region decreased by 11.9% (the Russian average is 3.5%), www.newkaliningrad.ru/news/briefs/community/23616688-vlasti-i-rosstat-ozvuchili-protivorechivye-versii-rezkogo-snizheniya-chisla-smertey-v-oblasti.html.
 Levada recorded a historic low in Putin’s level of general support (59%) and level of trust (28%). This poll is not yet available in English. Russian version: www.levada.ru/2020/05/06/odobrenie-institutov-vlasti-i-doverie-politikam/.