The Polish-Russian border region – cooperation?

Arkadiusz Żukowski
Full Professor, Director
Institute of Political Science, University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn

Wojciech Tomasz Modzelewski
Associate Professor
Institute of Political Science, University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn

Taking the political-administrative criterion, the Polish-Russian border region is considered to be two adjacent regions with a common land border, i.e. the Warmia and Mazury Region (Warmińsko-Mazurskie voivodeship) and the Kaliningrad Region (Oblast) of Russia. The specificity of this border region results, inter alia, from the special geopolitical role of the Kaliningrad Region as a Russian enclave and the fact that the Polish-Russian border is at the same time the border of the Russia and NATO (since 1999) and the European Union (since 2004). This essentially raises the importance of the analysis of the political processes occurring there and of cross-border cooperation. The specificity of the Warmia and Mazury Region is its peripherality, as it is located far from the main areas of socio-economic activity of the country.

In 1992, a number of treaty provisions were concluded between Poland and Russia, including a treaty on friendly and good neighbourly cooperation and two agreements on cross-border cooperation, which gave an impulse to the development of contacts in the borderland. In 2001 and 2002 relevant regional agreements were concluded by the Marshal of the Warmia and Mazury Region and the Governor of the Kaliningrad Region as well as the chairman of the Assembly of the Warmia and Mazury Region and the chairman of the Kaliningrad Duma. At the local level, the most intensive cooperation took place between the counties and municipalities closest to the border, which implement specific cross-border projects. Each of the border Polish counties established partnership agreements with the Russian side, for instance: Braniewo with Zielenogradsk and Bagrationovsk, Kętrzyn with Pravdinsk and Kaliningrad. In total, in the Warmia and Mazury Region, a dozen counties and over 30 municipalities have partnership agreements with the Kaliningrad Region partners, and the same number belong to common Euroregions or undertook ad hoc informal cooperation.

The cooperation became more dynamic due to the implementation of the Local Border Traffic (LBT) regime in July 2012. The traffic on the common border has increased; e.g., in 2012, 4.7 m people crossed the border (the year before, only 2.3 m), and in 2014, more than 6.5 m people. The research conducted in the Polish border area shows that the greater opening of the border has, among other things: improved the situation on the labour market; resulted in a high level of investment in trade and tourism infrastructure; enabled an increase in revenue from catering and tourism activities and improved the financial situation of households. The importance of LBT for the regional economy cannot be overestimated. In 2015 alone Russians spent about PLN 286 million (about EUR 139 million) in the area covered by the LBT agreement. Polish owners of stores and service outlets (including in the healthcare sector), as well as restaurateurs and hoteliers benefited. In addition, the intensification of contacts in the common borderland has significantly contributed to overcoming negative stereotypes, which is particularly important in the case of such close neighbours.

However, the perception of Russia by the Polish government through the prism of threats caused a reduction in contacts with Russia, including the Kaliningrad Region, and above all was reflected in the suspension of the Polish-Russian local border traffic agreement in 2016. Since then, border traffic has declined; with 3.5 million border crossings in 2018, to 3.4 million in 2019 and only 0.74 million in 2020 (due to also the pandemic Covid-19).

The turning point in Polish-Russian relations, as well as in the discussed border region, was Russia’s aggression against Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The Polish government unequivocally fully supported Ukraine and was a co-initiator of isolation and sanctions against Russia. The same actions applied to the Polish-Russian border region, e.g. the Assembly of the Warmia and Mazury Region terminated the cooperation agreement with the Kaliningrad Duma, the city of Elbląg broke off cooperation with partner cities in Russia and Belarus.

In conclusion, the Polish-Russian border is a special border. On the one hand, it has global significance, performing an important protective function with respect to the EU member states and Russia, and thus its functions depend on geopolitical relations. From the perspective of the European Union, the Kaliningrad Region is not an independent entity of cooperation, but only an element of Brussels’ relations with the entire Russia. However, the enclave location of this region makes it stand out in the EU policy, especially in the area of transit, visas and aid programmes. On the other hand, the border was crossed mainly by local communities living in the borderland. Thus, its role in the local dimension was equally important, for example as a factor eliminating the problem of peripherality. The Polish-Russian border region, inter alia, due to the common historical heritage (East Prussia) and an important political role, created a potential, although not fully exploited, area of cooperation. But now this is under great question.

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