KALININGRAD, Russia Russia reaffirmed its commitment to Kaliningrad Saturday, as President Vladimir Putin marked the 750 years since the founding of the tiny Baltic Sea territory separated from the rest of Russia since the Soviet collapse.
Lavish celebrations were intended to head off talk of autonomy and outright independence that has been brewing among Kaliningrad's residents, many of whom are angered by what they see as Moscow's neglect of the territory during its 60 years under Russian control.
The region has been beset by drugs and the country's highest rate of HIV infection.
Russia will continue paying the necessary attention to developing Kaliningrad and the whole Kaliningrad region, the Russian president said at ceremonies for the restored Royal Gates, part of an ancient fortress.
French President Jacque Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were expected to attend the events and the three leaders were to meet Sunday for talks on Russia-European relations.
But the festivities were soured, at least in part, by Moscow's snub of Kaliningrad's neighbors' Lithuania and Poland - neither of which was invited.
Founded in 1255 by the Teutonic Order of knights, the city was called Koenigsburg and was capital of Germany's East Prussia until Soviet troops took it over in 1945. Dictator Josef Stalin expelled ethnic Germans from the area and renamed the city in honor of a prominent Bolshevik, Mikhail Kalinin.
The city of gray Soviet-style concrete buildings and a few German houses that remain on its outskirts was cleaned and partly renovated for the celebrations. Billboards sprang up reading Kaliningrad-750 years. Few signs mentioned Koenigsberg.
One large banner on Kaliningrad's main square showed students studying a code of Russian laws with the national tricolor flag on its cover. "We are not an island in Russia, we are part of a united Russia", it read.
At a meeting with Russian governors, Putin mentioned German philosopher Immanuel Kant, a lifelong resident of Kaliningrad, and he was to participate on Sunday in a ceremony renaming the Kaliningrad State University the Immanuel Kant State University. He and Schroeder were to lay flowers at the philosopher's grave.
The costly celebrations were attended by all of Russia's 89 governors, in what appeared an attempt to demonstrate that Kaliningrad was once and for all Russian. Waving Russian national flags, several Kaliningrad residents said they needed no convincing.
This is our city, said Olga Zaytseva, a 74-year-old retiree who arrived in war-devastated Kaliningrad in 1952. We have restored this city, it used to be nothing but ruins.
Others, however, felt Kaliningrad was more European than Russian.
We are closer to Europe. We spend all our vacations there, said Vlad, a 30-year-old driver who declined to give his last name. And our drivers are polite like in Europe.
Since the Soviet Union disintegrated, the approximately 1 million people in the region have been cut off from the rest of Russia, and they have felt even more alone since Lithuania and Poland's entry into the European Union last year.
Visa restrictions introduced by the EU have complicated Kaliningrad's contacts with its neighbors. And Putin's government hasn't decided whether to allow the territory to integrate with the EU, worrying that might spur independence sentiment here.
The region is also troubled by rampant smuggling and drug use and has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in all of Russia.
Chafing at what they see as neglect by Moscow, some residents have gone so far as to call for a referendum on making Kaliningrad an autonomous republic within Russia. The proposal would allow it to harmonize tax and customs laws with EU rules, conclude its own trade deals with the EU, deregulate trade and ultimately introduce the euro currency.