The future’s bright – the future’s Lidl

Kaliningrad Map, adapted and cropped from image with credit to Jim Kistler, USAWC

( – Ola Cichowlas – January 7, 2014)

Ola Cichowlas is a British-Polish freelance journalist. She covers Russian regional politics and the arts in provincial Russia.

As Russia and the EU fight it out for Ukraine, Ola Cichowlas reports on a more positive initiative on another border, where Russians from Kaliningrad can travel to Gdansk in Poland to sample the bright lights (and cheap sausage)

The bus drivers in Kaliningrad listen to Polish radio stations, so as you travel you can hear emotional presenters broadcasting worrying news from their EU-funded skyscrapers in Warsaw: Russia has planted nuclear missiles on Poland’s doorstep, in this military-infested outpost of Putin’s empire in North-East Europe. Our bus driver chuckles: ‘Only very small ones!’

No amount of weapons of mass destruction can scare Kaliningrad. ‘Missiles are in our blood, we are Russia’s military pride’, the driver, an-ex soldier, mumbles at his mirror. He is right, because Kaliningrad was one of the most militarised regions of the USSR and in this respect nothing much has changed.

The submarines and warships docked on the Pregolya River are not just tourist attractions. They are part of the Baltic Fleet, sitting in Russia’s only ice-free European port. The Kremlin flaunted Kaliningrad’s armed might when Putin and his Belarusian ally Lukashenka raced their tanks and shelled the 14th century Prussian church of Gross Engelau here during their ‘Zapad [West] 2013’ military exercises this summer.

An uneasy relationship

Russian missiles and Zapad 2013 are in fact only a small part of Polish-Russian relations, which have never been easy. Centuries of hostility have included a time when part of Poland was in the Russian Empire, and more recently a provocative stance by the identical Kaczy ski twins, one of whom, Lech, the then president of Poland, died in a controversial plane crash in 2010. Not to mention regular trade disputes. In Warsaw, these tensions sometimes surface as controversial populist movements, as was seen in this year’s Independence Day riots in November, where nationalists attacked the Russian Embassy. In Moscow, they appear as arrogant political rhetoric where Poland features as part of a treacherous Eastern Europe that acts as the ‘Judas of Slavdom’.

None of this has affected our bus driver, who drives to Poland and back twice a day, the boot of his bus filled with Lidl and IKEA shopping bags. At home, his fridge is full of Polish food and his daughter studies in the Polish city of Olsztyn, not far from its border with Kaliningrad. He also sells cigarettes to Poles and often puts them up when they cross into Russia to tank up their cars. ‘What do I need Moscow for if I have Poland?’, he asks, pulling out his Ural Siberian Bank credit card, which looks almost ridiculous in this landscape of red-brick Prussian villages.

Since December 2011, the driver and his passengers are able to enter the EU member state freely thanks to a Small Border Traffic agreement between Poland and Kaliningrad. Anyone living in the Russian region can purchase a 250 Rouble [5 GBP] yearly pass and travel freely within the north-eastern Pomorze region of Poland, which includes three major Polish cities: Gdansk, Elblag and Olsztyn.

Business in East Prussia

The Kaliningrad-Gdansk bus winds down narrow cobbled roads and past ruined German churches surrounded by Soviet cemeteries. Once it crosses the Polish border, Soviet war monuments give way to over-sized statues of the Virgin Mary. The Polish border town of Braniewo was once the Prussian Braunsberg, a member of the Hanseatic League and home to the Teutonic Knights;  in the 19th century it was one of the Prussian academic centres that led Germany to unification.  Today, zlotys and roubles are being exchanged on every street corner. Socialist palaces of culture have been replaced by shopping centres and formerly Protestant churches serve Catholic communities. But the Germans have re-appeared, as if to haunt locals with their Teutonic past – only this time in the form of the global discount supermarket chain Lidl.

Founded in 1930s Germany, Lidl is part of the Schwarz Group, the fifth largest retailer in the world. But it is much more than that. In Kaliningrad, Lidl has come to represent Europe, an easier life and the ability to choose. Along with Biedronka (Ladybird), a low-price Polish supermarket chain that sells almost exclusively Polish products despite being owned by a Portuguese company, and the Swedish ready-to-assemble furniture brand IKEA, the low-budget retailers have created a myth of what life could be for Kaliningraders.

So much so that a song has been written about it. ‘Hello Lidl, Hello Biedronka’ is not only a YouTube hit for Kaliningrad rock group Parovoz, but a favourite on both sides of the border as well.  Although admittedly, with its chorus featuring the line ‘The race for sausages and beer’, it sits uncomfortably with the Kremlin’s policy of banning food imports from neighbouring countries during cross border disputes.

The lead singer, Timur Titarenko, said he got the idea for the song while queuing at the border on his way to spend the day in Poland. Poles take their role as the gatekeepers of Europe very seriously, and the Eastern borders they share with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine have some of Europe’s strictest controls. At this crossing, however, guards often recognize regular travellers and share a cafeteria with the Russian border police as well as the Gdansk-Kaliningrad bus drivers. There is also a Duty Free shop in the run-down kilometre that forms the no-man’s-land between the two countries. Two young Russian girls operate Czech tills and sell bricks of cigarettes, the most appreciated product on the Polish side of the border.

However, cheaper groceries and DIY furniture are not the only reasons Kaliningraders flock to Poland’s Pomorze region. Lech Walesa Airport in Gdansk is Kaliningrad’s gateway to the world. Turkey and Egypt are popular destinations where affordable package holidays are enhanced by visa-free travel. And thanks to Gdansk’s host-city status at the Euro 2012 football championship, Russian holiday makers travel to the airport along a newly built motorway, lined with BP and Lukoil petrol stations on one side and Polish ‘dzialki’ (communist-era allotment plots) on the other.

An unlikely exchange

The President of Gdansk’s City Council gave a talk in Kaliningrad about his city’s experience in dealing with its German past ­ at many points in its history the city (formerly Danzig) was part of Prussia (and afterwards Germany).  The neighbouring cities are polar opposites. Gdansk’s shipyards, the birthplace of the Solidarno (Solidarity) movement, are a symbol of Polish freedom and the yearning for democracy, whereas Kaliningrad’s military port, though the birthplace of the father of modern philosophy Immanuel Kant, is monument to the power of the state.

Kaliningrad too had another name in its Prussian past ­ Königsberg ­  and the debate about returning the city to its original German name is a perpetual psychological torment for the local liberal intelligentsia. The city is currently named after Mikhail Kalinin, a brutal Bolshevik who sent his own wife to a Siberian Gulag. ‘Intellectually we are for it, but historically we are not’, Kaliningrad blogger Mikhail Kostyaev told me. ‘This is not Russian territory. But it’s not Chechnya or Dagestan. Kaliningrad is Russia’s last trophy for winning the war and saving Europe’.

Many expect Russia’s most Western tip to be ‘more European’ and ‘different in character’. It is not uncommon for Siberians to relocate to Kaliningrad for their retirement, seeking an easier climate and to be closer to Europe. Muscovites and Petersburgers also choose Kaliningrad ­ though its ‘special economic zone’ has never turned the region into a Russian version of Nevada, it still has Russia’s most liberal tax policy.

But nothing to compare to an open border and the free movement of people, ideas and goods. In the last decade, we have become accustomed to hearing about wealthy Russians shopping in prestigious London department stores, luxury Parisian boutiques and Milanese designer stores. Gdansk is better known for its revolutionary shipyards than Vogue catwalks, but the city hosts more Russian shoppers every weekend than any of these fashion capitals. As both Russian and Polish officials see the small border traffic agreement as a critical step to a broader achievement of visa-free travel, this makes it one of the most positive shifts in EU-Russia relations in recent years.

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