Does Russia want to keep its Far East?

By Andrei Piontkovsky, The Russia Journal, No. 33 (126), 24 August 2002

I have two documents before me, both on the problems of Siberia and the Far East. What's interesting is that the authors mostly agree in their historical views on the region's development during the Soviet period.

Much of the industry in that region was located there for strategic and administrative reasons, not because it made sense from the standpoint of market economics, notes the first and more laconic of the two texts.

There's no forgetting that the roots of this situation go back to the socialist blueprint for location and development of industrial facilities drawn up during the Soviet period. This blueprint was entirely suited to the centralized system of mobilization and distribution of state resources in the interests of a ‘unified national economic complex,’ reads the second document.

But though they agree in their views on the past, the authors draw opposite conclusions about the future. The author of the first document expresses deep concern that, The very market-oriented reform the West is advocating for Russia could accelerate Russia's withdrawal from its Far Eastern territories.

Corporate interests

The second text, on the contrary, bursts with historical optimism: Policy with regard to Siberia and the Far East must reflect the new realities brought about by liberal-market transformation, react calmly to market expansion and a shrinking state sector, realize that economic crises and bankruptcies are natural and accept the existence of a labor market and accompanying unemployment as well as the expansion of spheres of interests and opportunities of large corporations.

The authors of this second document also explain just how they think large corporations will work to further their interests and opportunities in the new realities brought about by liberal-market transformations.

Transformation to the system of settlement will probably follow three directions. The first is to form compact and temporary villages settled by people coming in shifts. The second direction is to gradually wind down industrial capacity and the social infrastructure that goes with it. The third direction involves total liquidation of companies forming the economic foundation of a town, which would then put the town's survival into question. These are natural transformations to the system of settlement for natural-resource-exploiting companies to be able to function in market conditions.

But after carrying out all these transformations, where will the natural-resource-exploiting companies go for the labor force they need to function in the market? The authors have an answer:

The combination of gradual and ongoing aging of the population and consequent migration away from the region means the only way to prevent depopulation of the huge Siberian and Far Eastern territories is through immigration, which is also the only way to improve the sex and age structure of the population. Given that immigrants are already arriving from the Asian-Pacific region, principally from China, this immigration should be seen as socially significant and should be welcomed by the state.

Now it's time to finally introduce this abundantly quoted document. The title page reads: Council on Foreign and Defense Policy; Siberia and the Far East in Russia in the 21st Century; New Assessments, New Priorities and New Decisions; Moscow, June 2001.

One of the document's sections gives a running list of its sponsors. In tones of great respect, the anonymous eggheads behind the document describe the charitable and socially significant activities of the heads of natural-resource-exploiting companies such as Norilsk Nickel, Sidanko, Alliance and others.

The same enthusiastic and caring tone is used to describe the future waves of Chinese immigrants called upon to toil for the oligarchs who are equally distant from everything whatsoever, but certainly not from the resource pie.

Given that Chinese immigration (and immigration from other Asian countries in the future) is inevitable, a targeted information and propaganda campaign should be organized to change public opinion, calm its fears of \u2018the yellow peril' and form a positive image of Asian immigrants.

Grab it and run

The project's sponsors, both those on the list and those who remain anonymous, should be happy with their product. The aging Russian population with its unsuitable sex and age structure isn't good enough for the region's future masters even as cheap labor. The fate allocated to these people is to follow the three directions of population decline. Meanwhile, Chinese immigrants with a positive image boosted by advertising posters will milk the region's resources and fill the oligarchs' foreign bank accounts with billions of dollars.

In another 10 or 15 years' time, when the demographic situation in the region will have become obvious, Russia will withdraw from first the Far East and then Siberia, first de facto, then de jure.

The equally distant oligarchs will flee from Russia to the West, taking to its logical conclusion the model created by Chukotka Gov. Roman Abramovich, who already today sleeps in Alaska. In the last train out they'll take with them the intellectual servants who labored by the sweat of their brow to give Chinese migrants a positive image. Such are the new assessments, new priorities and new decisions proposed by the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

A voice of reason

But whose lonely voice is warning about the danger of Russia losing its Far East region? This voice belongs to Thomas Graham, a well-known American analyst who has just taken on a responsible post in the State Department's Strategic Planning Department.

Thomas Graham is not a Russian patriot; he is an American patriot. He adheres to that school of American political thought that believes that one thing is clear: Constructing a durable balance will be more complicated if Russia's presence in Asia wanes further. In this sense, the United States, as well as most Asian powers, has a long-term strategic interest in the development and maintenance of a healthy Russian presence in East Asia. If this is true, and given U.S. interests in the region, then would it make sense for our two countries, along with interested parties, to examine how we can rebuild the economy in the Russian Far East so as to bolster Russian sovereignty there?

This point of view is opposed in the United States by a different current of political analysis that views the geopolitical model of the 21st century as a sort of condominium of two superpowers—the United States and a greater China. This view believes that the United States shouldn't get in the way of China's moves to increase its zone of influence on the Asian continent.

If the Russian authorities adopt the recommendations made by the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, this will strengthen the hand of the China lobby within the United States establishment. Indeed, why help bolster the sovereignty of a country set on fatally weakening it with its own hands?