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LOOKING AHEAD

August 24, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Maxim Kalashnikov

THE GREAT DRAGON'S GRAVITY

Russia's border regions are in the orbit of China's sphere of influence

THE ILLUMINATIVE PRECEDENT OF MONGOLIA

It would be not correct to locate the problem of separatism in Russia only in the territories of North Caucasus and Volga. Secessionist ideas emerge also along the southern border of Siberia, particularly in the republics of Highland Altai, Tuva, and Buryatia. This sentiment originates not from lack of cultural and political guarantees of autonomy but mainly from social problems. Vast territories, lacking attention and capital investment from the capital of Russia, are fascinated with the example of the adjacent Mongolia – a once closest political ally of the USSR, completely ignored by the government of Boris Yeltsin and rescued from devastation by the People's Republic of China. Today, the sight of impressive skyscrapers, erected in Ulaan Baatar by Chinese investors, arouse envy among the intelligentsia of Russia's Tuva and Buryatia.

The picture of the rising Mongolia provides the same impact as Constantinople of the times when the flourishing Byzantine impressed Russian princes. The burgeoning activity of China's real economy and the related improvement of living standards naturally attract Russian provinces, displaying a visible contrast with the domestic urban reality. Arriving in Moscow, guests from Gorno-Altaisk of Kyzyl encounter a picture of hedonistic euphoria of the relaxing filthy rich, blatantly indifferent to the rest of their nation. In Beijing, they witness an astounding combination of political will and commitment for social and cultural improvement of the whole Chinese nation. Being invited to the capital of China by local corporate managers or politicians, provincial officials from Buryatia, Tuva or Altai view Beijing as a real center of an advanced civilization, by contrast to which Moscow looks as a big village.

 

TUVAN LEADERS HESITATE

The influence of the Chinese civilization inevitably influences the psychology of South Siberian politicians. The leadership of Tuva is now hesitating over the project of a railway link between its center, Kyzyl, and the Transsiberian Railroad across the Sayan Range. The railroad, included in this year in the list of the projects financed from the Russian Government's Investment Fund, is ambiguously perceived in Tuva, as its major purpose is not improvement of living conditions but export of coal from the Tuvan deposit of Eleghest. The government of Tuva considers an alternative possibility of a railway connection with China. The reasons were recently expressed by Sholban Kara-Ool, the newly-elected President of Tuva:

"Sincerely speaking, my attitude towards the Kyzyl-Kuragino railway link is very ambiguous. On the one hand, common reason is telling me that without a railway network, our republic is unable to develop. On the other hand, as a son of my people, I fear for the nature and the resources of the Taiga. Maybe we should better wait until economic development and social policy acquires a more humanistic approach than today?"

Opening a local cultural center in Tuva's Ulug-Khem District on February 24, 2007, Mr. Kara-Ool said: "By today, construction of the Kyzyl-Kuragino Railroad is not a timely project. It does not guarantee social progress to our republic. As soon as the railroad is completed, the Eleghest coal will be taken out for pin money. We would better think in which direction a railroad should be eventually built".

The only alternative direction is China, which is in great need of energy resources. The President of Tuva correctly expects that the republic's cooperation with the Chinese may be more favorable for Tuva's budget, and therefore, for the prospects of social development.

The Buryats, a part of the Mongolian ethnos, also possess some resources demanded by China. The Baikal Lake is the earth's largest deposit of fresh water. Meanwhile, the Buryat Republic, as well as Tuva, is one of the most impoverished regions of the Russian Federation since the collapse of Soviet system of economic planning and distribution of national incomes.

 

LIBERAL ECONOMY DESTROYS SIBERIA

Moscow's regional policy is now efficiently stimulating territorial disintegration. In its practice, it is based on a principle of social Darwinism, favoring mostly the regions rich with oil and gas, or hosting major international transport hubs. The existing plans of Siberia's development are based primarily on corporate plans of extraction of oil, gas and metals. In the Soviet period, these raw materials were used for upgrading the consolidated industrial potential of an imperial economy, where each of the regions played an indispensable and honorable role in the progress of the whole nation.

The Soviet-time Siberian industry involved the potential of technological intellect, exemplified in such strategic enterprises as Polyot, the Omsk-based aircraft construction enterprise; Krasnoyarsk Machine Tool Plant, a leading missile producer, as well as a major helicopter-assembling facility in Ulan-Ude, the center of Buryatia. The cities of Irkutsk and Komsomolsk-on-Amur once emerged as strategic centers of aircraft industry, while the town of Arseniev in Primorsky Krai (Far East) was designed as the major assembling site of cruise missiles and novel military helicopters. Since 1991, the productivity of Siberian industry declined by 90%, while the projects of social development around centers of basic technological production were completely abandoned.

In early 2007, President Vladimir Putin eventually raised the issue of industrial and social revival of the Far East, insisting that the neglected territory requires large-scale development project. However, the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, dominated by believing liberals, conveniently ignored Kremlin's directive. Today, the Ministry promises to launch the relevant programs in 2009. Until that time, Siberian regions are supposed to develop the preceding national design – namely, the Program of the Far East's Development, adopted by the Plenum of CPSU's Central Committee in year 1987.

 

MINISTERIAL MENTATION TOO FAR FROM THE FAR EAST

In order to deal with the rapidly developing potential of China on equal conditions, Russia has to raise new centers of comprehensive industrial development in East Siberia and the Far East, comparable with megalopolises of the European part of Russia. This development should involve a new spaceport, promoted today mostly by local enthusiasts, as well as the related high technology cluster of enterprises. The industrial potential of Komsomolsk-on-Amur is sufficient for production of new spaceships. Industrial development needs new energy plants and distribution networks, while comprehensive development of Sakhalin, including new industries using massive biological resources, requires a railway transport link, designed yet in the times of Joseph Stalin but never implemented.

Buryatia and Tuva could be developed as major centers of alternative energy production, and new technologies of industrial and housing construction. Vladimir Boldyrev, president of Kalmykian Oil Company, proposed to develop the Buddhist-dominated republics of Kalmykia, Tuva, and Buryatia, into special economic zones, developing new technologies, and thus comprising an alternative to the Chinese model of development. These proposals, made in 2001, were ignored by the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.

While the responsible Ministry does not bother to launch competition in non-resource-based development of Siberian lands, their population is being more and more attracted by the example of China, particularly its experience of modernization of its formerly poor outskirts.

Yury Krupnov, chairman of the Movement for Development, correctly indicates that today's federal economic policy actually promotes impoverishment of Russia's East. In the Siberian regions, essential consumer goods are 2.2-4.8 times more expensive than in the European part of Russia, while communal tariffs are 1.7-2.2 times higher than the average figure. Meanwhile, average salaries in Eastern regions are higher only by 30%, while increments are available only for state employees.

Today's federal policy, fostering redistribution of financial flows in favor of predominantly Moscow and Moscow Region, is exacerbating the present deficiency of economic, social, and demographic development of Eastern Siberia and the Far East. The related migration of Siberians to Russia's western regions will result in further depopulation of Siberia, unless the federal government undertakes a qualitatively new approach towards the problem.

 

ABANDONED AND ALIENATED

The European part of Russia is referred by the population of Siberia as the "Big Land" or even simply Russia – as opposed to the neglected regions. This thinking is spreading not only due to huge distances as such but also due to enormous costs for transport. In the Soviet period, as well as earlier in the Russian Empire, tariffs for long-distance travel across the country were established not according to the market price of required fuel. Distant travels were purposefully donated by the state, stimulating colonization of the vast expanse of eastern lands, and providing to their residents a possibility to communicate with relatives in the European Russia. In the USSR, the costs of traveling from the utmost East to the utmost West of Russia did not exceed one third of an average salary. This tariff policy was designed in a way to keep the nation together. Nowadays, a resident of Vladivostok or Khabarovsk would rather afford a trip to Korea, Japan, or China is much more affordable than a trip to Moscow or Nizhny Novgorod. Absence of basic social guarantees, resulting from criminalization of regional economies, as well as the painful awareness of being left derelict by the authorities of their own, is keeping the population of Eastern lands in a permanent psychological depression.

At present, most of the population of East Siberia and the Far East cannot afford regular trips to European Russia. No wonder that the population uses every possibility to resettle closer to their relatives. During the last decade, migration from the Far East to European Russia comprised over 1mln people, the local population thus declining by 12 per cent. The population density in Eastern Siberia is lower than one fiftieth of that in European Russia (1.1 per 1 sq. km as compared with 57.7 per 1 sq. km).

 

THE PRESENT APPROACH IS UNWORKABLE

High costs of passenger and cargo transportation, determined by the free market approach to tariff policy, undermine trade between Russia's East and West and essentially disrupt the domestic production chains and trade. Today, trade between the Far East and the European Russia comprises not more than 4% of the trade exchange of the remote regions. Meanwhile, trade exchange with the adjacent regions of China is rapidly increasing. In fact, Russia's East is today rather an element of the Chinese market than Russian.

Economic devastation, social exhaustion, and impending territorial losses in Russia's Far East may be reversed only by means of a special, resolutely implemented economic policy. It requires target subsidies for support of affordable transport tariffs, as well as mechanisms of state regulation of prices for fuel and basic consumer goods. Social policy has to consider broader access of the local population to housing certificates, as well as special subsidies for worker, involved in strategic industry, regardless from ownership of the industrial facilities.

However, mere compensation is by today insufficient. Russia's Far East needs an accelerated development. This suggests not only new projects of productive industry but also special privileges for transport of goods.

The eastern territories of Russia require a development program of a scale, comparable with the designs of early 1930s, when the Soviet Government, facing the menace of aggression from Japan, initiated a massive economic endeavor of modernization of the Far East, servicing particularly the Special Far East Army (ODVA), equipped with TB-3 bombers, capable of reaching Tokyo. The new city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, then declared as a bulwark of labor and defense, by 1960 emerged into a major center of aircraft construction, as well as production of nuclear submarines.

 

THE TIGER BEHIND THE BACK

The economic success of China allows this nation to purchase technologies and equipment from the neighboring Russia. This natural increase of demand increasingly involves military technologies and inventory. By today, China owns 76 Russia-produced SU-27 fighters, while Russia itself possesses only nine. This disparity reflects strategic weakness of the Russian state, along with the decline of Russian fundamental and technical science, whose specialists are more and more frequently employed by Chinese corporations.

Under its current leadership, China pursues a politically friendly approach towards Russia. A domestic political change in China, which Russia is unable to influence in any way, may transform a powerful friend into a formidable enemy, equipped with best achievements of Soviet technologies, and possessing a much better knowledge of Russia and its economic capabilities than any of Western powers.

With its potential of a huge manpower, a strong political will and an economic policy based on long-term planning, today's China exceeds Russia in strategic development. The problem of overpopulation, multiplied to the problem of scarcity of natural resources, tempts China for a northward expansion. This potential challenge to the fundamental security of the Russian territory dictates the necessity of comprehensive development of the Far East, including modernization of Siberian military industrial facilities.

In early 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party developed a special program for restricting population growth under the logo "One Child for One Family". As the ancient Chinese tradition suggests that a family should have a male successor, lots of families chose to have a son, preventing birth of a girl by means of early diagnosis. Therefore, young men dominate in the category of population which has reached the age of 20-25 years. In case the leadership of China fails to use the passionate potential of this generation in a peaceful way, their access to public activity may result in a political implosion and a large-scale civil conflict. In this case, any active political figure of a provisional government would prefer to transform the energy of the domestic unrest into the energy of war for resources, which in this case will be even of higher demand.

It is true that China has never exceeded the borders of the Great Wall. The old underdeveloped China, dependent from Western powers, pressured by strong Asiatic rivals and possessing no strategic weapons, actually did not have this possibility. Today, we are facing a China capable of space exploration, and moreover, efficient use of space weapons; a China possessing nuclear energy, intercontinental missiles, and supersonic fighters.

In 1987, when the CPSU adopted its new program of the Far East's development, China's military potential was far lower than the capacity of the USSR. In case of a collision, the Soviet side could stop the columns of Chinese troops by means of aviation, or disrupt supplies of fuel and subsistence. Nowadays, the situation is diametrically different: China is developing its own fifth-generation fighter, reproducing Soviet-designed missile launchers, and acquiring unmanned anti-ABM vehicles based on Israeli technology.

This author does not insist that Russia seek an alliance with Western powers against China. Such a choice would promptly deprive Russia from political and economic independence, as the Anglo-American elites and corporations are excessively interested in overtake of resource-rich Siberian lands. Instead, Russia should rely upon itself, and seek strategic solutions for most reliable protection of its territory, its industrial assets, its social demographic survival, as well as guarantees of long-term security. One of such guarantees could be provided by the revived project of the River Reverse, which would greatly increase Russia's strategic influence in Central Asia.


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