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What is in store for Russian Asia?

by Andrey Borodaevskiy

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, a large number of ethnic Russians and other Russian-speaking and Russian-cultured peoples remained outside the borders of the Russian Federation — creating, in the short run, many acute and complicated problems but, in the long run, eventually facilitating a revival of amenity and mutually profitable cooperation between the newborn nation-states in the future.

Thus, not only complementarity of national resources and tight cohesion of economic structures will be at play, but also healthy elements of traditional cultural ties pushing toward a revival of centripetal forces bringing the “brother peoples” together again. Speculating about the future of Russia, one should not ignore the existing prerequisites for the emergence of an integration system including the three Slavic republics plus Kazakhstan, and the gradual “twinning” of their economic structures. On this path, the relatively most successful of the integration schemes in the former imperial area — the Euro-Asian Economic Community with its Customs Union and Single Economic Space mechanisms — can play an instrumental role (though none of them include Ukraine).

Meanwhile, one is tempted to agree with the concept according to which innovative investment can bring steady profits only in a market with a sufficient “critical mass.” In this particular case, that means a single market of Russia together at least with Ukraine and, still better, with some other fragments of the former Soviet empire. Unfortunately, there are only meager chances for such a development, while the idea of a “second historic re-union” of Russia and Ukraine is perceived as a delirious dream.

In view of the acute domestic and international problems Russia is facing, some outstanding brains have been reflecting upon “deadly threats” to its near and more distant future. Usually the list of such threats begins with the ongoing demographic catastrophe: the speedy depopulation of the country — especially its eastern regions — on the one hand, and the diminishing stock of ethnic Russians on the other hand.

The remedy is routinely seen in an eventual reorientation of economy toward the “outstripping development” of its consumer sector. This is a sound idea which deserves backing in every possible way.

It remains unclear, though, exactly in what way such a historic radical turn can be achieved in a society in which political authoritarian monopoly reigns supreme, while economic — state capitalist and oligarchic — monopoly is in the making, a society in which there is no reliable law and order, and both creative public opinion and the private initiative of the common people are largely ignored and neglected.

According to Standard and Poor’s, by 2050 Russia’s population will decline to 116 million people. Moreover, by 2035, Russia’s credit rating may be reduced to “unfit for investment” — all as a result of the catastrophic demographic trends (low birthrate, high mortality, rapidly graying population, etc.).

However, it is important to emphasize that the “deadly threat” of depopulation is hardly one of a primary nature. Rather, it looks like a concentrated and summing-up result of faults inherent in the established social, economic and political order, which denies pluralism, competition and freedom of choice. The people’s “body” remains puny and struggling for survival. The middle class is thin and hardly growing. It is only the “head” and some “organs” that are well-nourished and even getting excessively plump.

To boot, the Russian leadership favors populism of a bad variety based on “siege moods” and on an actual denial of the potential of far-reaching international cooperation — at least where the presence of foreign players and freedom of their actions on Russian territory are concerned. The prevailing geopolitical approach to international affairs turns out only slightly covered anti-American and anti-NATO sentiments, or hard feelings toward Europe because of criticism coming from Brussels, or rather irrational attempts to selectively manipulate gas supplies to put energy pressure on some trading partners, or jealous and preoccupied attitudes toward former Soviet republics.

Thus, to make an adequate response to the “fatal threats” it faces, our society needs to enact far-reaching reforms to solve many interconnected problems: to destroy the political and economic monopoly, to democratize the social and political “rules of the game” and thus secure necessary consolidation of civil society, finally to achieve fully-fledged openness of the economy and the country in general and actively integrate it into the global system.

In practice, it implies transition to political pluralism, safe-guarding of conditions necessary for competition, active backing of small and mid-size businesses and decisive steps toward integration into the global economy through the unequivocal acceptance of the WTO rules.

A modern and adequate legislative base should be created albeit the present composition of the Russian parliament, the Duma — as well as the current election rules that perpetuate the utter domination of one party on all levels of political life and will assure that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin safely returns to the presidency for an unforeseeably long time — hardly favor enactment of the necessary political and economic reforms.

Meanwhile, only a genuine parliamentarian democracy based on a division of powers can enable society to radically cut and streamline the state apparatus, to de-bureaucratize it and to free it of at least the worst manifestations of corruption. It can maintain law and order without recourse to Stalin-style terror, exclude cases of arbitrary rule and selective application of legislation, and guarantee fundamental liberties to the mass media as the main channels of public opinion. Only through such a radical evolution, will it be possible for Russia to create a favorable political and investment climate, and to survive as a great nation.

It is also absolutely clear that standing alone, without attracting foreign funds and foreign people, will hardly make it feasible for Russia to secure the rapid development of Siberia and its Far East. Such a major endeavor requires a new geo-economic approach that can secure legal and well-organized inflows of economic migrants and long-term capital and modern entrepreneurship — in contrast to the wild and inhumane, illegal and semi-legal, institution of “guest workers” that Russia has today.

The concept of the Eurasian Union, put forward by Putin as one of the first elements of his presidential program, seems to be too narrow and thus hardly adequate to such a paramount undertaking either because it would, even with the highly improbable participation of Ukraine, embrace only basically poor countries with meager financial and labor resources, and no proper markets.

The further industrialization of Russia’s eastern regions should become a genuine multinational mega-project involving both Russia’s Asian neighbors (China, Korea, Japan, etc.) and such major players as the United States and Europe. Otherwise, it seems it will be impossible to draw investors and migrants to this region, unbelievably vast but not so friendly from the point of weather and terrain.

If the scenario for the re-colonization of Siberia, including its easternmost parts, is not written in Moscow and executed under its aegis, there surely will appear other scenarios compiled in other world capitals. It is well known that nature abhors vacuums.

Russian professor Andrey Borodaevskiy, an expert on international economic relations, is co-author of “Russia in the Diversity of Civilizations.” His email address is annabo36@mail.ru.