Kaliningrad: The Old-Guard Hangs On

Resign!" shouted an opposition deputy, pointing his finger at the chairman of Kaliningrad's parliament. "I am not a criminal," the infuriated Communist Party boss replied. It came down to a vote of confidence. When Kaliningrad's Communists lost, the chamber shook with cheers-then angry protests as party hard-liners refused to resign. "If this were the West, these thugs would be out immediately," said one indignant opposition leader. "Here, they hang on to power at all costs."

Communism may be dying elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but in Kaliningrad the old guard is holding out. The struggle is of more than passing interest for the West, because Kaliningrad hosts the densest concentration of Soviet forces in the world. It is home to the formidable Baltic fleet, several tank divisions and a massive air-defense force. Nearly half a million troops and their families are based in Kaliningrad, along with a sizable nuclear arsenal. "It's hard to overstate the strategic importance of Kaliningrad," says John Erickson, a leading defense expert at Edinburgh University. But with Lithuania now independent, Kaliningrad is cut off from the rest of the Russian Republic. And because it has little industry to sustain itself, money is becoming a problem. Moscow's cash-strapped military may soon be unable to pay Kaliningrad's bills. The Soviet high command thus faces a tough choice: to maintain forces in Kaliningrad or cut back. Says Erickson: "I'm betting the Soviets will have to write the place off."

Kaliningrad has always been an outpost of empire. Fifty years ago it was Konigsberg, capital of East Prussia and a citadel of German militarism. Seized by the Soviets during the war, the city and the surrounding region were renamed after Stalin's titular president Mikhail Kalinin. Some 40,000 German inhabitants who failed to escape to the West were either shipped to the steppes or executed. Impoverished Russians, dislocated by the war, came to take their place.

Long off-limits to foreigners-and most Soviets-Kaliningrad recently opened up enough for a few reporters to slip inside.

It is a barren and desolate place. Poverty seems as pervasive as troop transports and military checkpoints. In the Saturday market at Gusev, one woman offers a single turnip for sale; another offers four carrots and a clutch of dill. "Moscow hasn't invested a ruble ... for 30 years, except for defense," says a newly elected deputy to Kaliningrad's parliament, Aleksandr Jidenkov. He wants the Army to withdraw, but others fear that would mean the region's ruin. "Half our people are military," says local journalist Martina Matunin. "If they go, almost nothing would be left."

Kaliningrad is now squabbling over that uncertain future. The Communist Party has been banned, as elsewhere in the Russian Republic, but its leaders are defiant. "Because of the Army, Kaliningrad is very conservative," Matunin explains. "Most people supported the putsch." Standing against the hard-liners is a growing band of opposition deputies and reform-minded Communists, including the capital's mayor, Vitaly Shipov, who supports Boris Yeltsin. "Without changing our leaders," he says, "there can be no progress." But he doesn't underestimate the conservatives' staying power.

It's no accident that Lenin's statue, torn down elsewhere, still stands in Kaliningrad. Here, the second Soviet revolution has yet to be won. The Soviet troops may stay, protected under new security arrangements negotiated with Lithuania. The talks will be delicate. Lithuania may balk at giving Moscow free access to Kaliningrad, since it was from bases on Lithuanian territory that the Soviets seized the republic in 1940. In the end, strategic and economic pressures are likely to force Moscow out. If so, it will mark yet another retreat for the Soviet empire-and a victory for the growing number of Kaliningraders who want, once again, to call their capital Konigsberg.