Now, Russia rediscovers the Far East

Tags: Op-ed
Now, Russia rediscovers the Far East
DONE DEAL: Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev (L) attends a press briefing with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (R) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 22
Most people associate the end of the Cold War with Europe, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disappearance of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. However, the end of the Cold War had equally dramatic consequences in Asia: the independence of the Central Asian states, the end of the super power rivalry on the Indian subcontinent and the disappearance of the Soviet military might from east Asia. In fact, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that motivated the Chinese leadership to brutally clamp down on tentative democratic movements and to focus with all determination on the economic development and the economic modernisation of the country.

The end of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of Leninist totalitarianism as an alternative to liberal democracy and the market economy have left Russia with the huge challenge to find a new identity. This process began with a strong refocus on the traditional European roots of the Russian state and Russian culture. However, over time, the equally traditional perception of Russia as a Eurasian cultural and political entity has returned. This change has notably been promoted by Vladimir Putin.

Immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s Far East went through difficult times. The inner coherence of the newly created Russian Federation was deeply shaken by the secession of huge territories both in Europe and in central Asia. Even with the loss of roughly a quarter of the landmass, the Russian Federation with its 17 million square kilometres remains the largest country in the world by far. More dramatic have been the demographic consequences of the end of the Soviet Union. Today’s Russian Federation has roughly half the population of the former USSR. The largest part of the loss is due to the secession of several huge territories. But a negative demographic trend is also taking its toll. Most importantly, the share of the European population in the total populace has increased. Today, over 80 per cent are of Russian stock.

With money and people being scarce in the young Russian Federation, it was logical that the Far East, remote from European Russia and neglected by the central government, was to suffer most. Although Siberia is extremely rich in natural resources, climate and remoteness make it traditionally a very uninviting territory to settle in. As after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Russians could now choose where to live; many of the better educated and more initiative young people left the Far East and moved to metropolitan Russia. Lack of funds contributed to a further decline of the already outdated infrastructure.

Now, finally things seem to be moving. Moscow is rediscovering the economic and geostrategic value of its Far East. On the one hand, Russia’s economy has been profiting from hugely increased income from natural resources. This allows the country to focus more on the Far East, where massive reserves in energy wait to be exploited. More importantly, however, Moscow pays increased attention to geopolitical issues in the Far East. Both Tokyo and Moscow watch with considerable apprehension the rapid rise of China.

A few weeks ago, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev visited China. With his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang, he signed a raft of bilateral agreements worth billions of US dollars. The deals contained financial credits and industrial projects. Both leaders called for more bilateral investments and, most significantly, Beijing secured major contracts on energy delivery from oil and gas rich Russia. All looked rather harmonious. However, only a short time after this economically mutually rewarding trip, Moscow made clear that the horizon of Russo-Chinese relations was not a bed of roses.

On the first weekend of November, the foreign and defence ministers of the Russian Federation and Japan met in Tokyo and agreed to deepen maritime security cooperation. This “two-plus-two” meeting was a first and all the more significant as the two neighbours are still entangled in a dispute about the Kurile Islands that are under Russian sovereignty since the end of World War II. This legacy of the defeat of Japan is a strong irritation not only for the most nationalistic politicians in Japan, but also for the large majority of Japanese members of parliament.

Nevertheless, the agreement to cooperate indicates that both Moscow and Tokyo are very concerned about the growing naval power of Beijing in the seas of the Far East. Last July, Chinese naval ships had for the first time entered the Sea of Okhotsk, which Russia considers an “inland sea”. Melting ice opens the path for new sea routes in the arctic regions and these are indeed of keen interest to the Chinese who as a new world power that is going to challenge the US, aspire to a global presence. Russians and Chinese have a strong sense of history, as do the Japanese. All three know that while many of unequal treaties that had been forced upon the Middle Kingdom in the 19th and 20th centuries have been removed, there are still lingering Sino-Russian disputes over huge tracts of land that many centuries ago the Russian Tsars had conquered.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily, Neue Zurcher Zeitung)


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