AMHERST, MASSACHUSETTS – Russia’s Pacific coast is like a neglected backyard adjacent to other people’s flourishing properties — thistle and thorn where others have lawns and flower beds; a rusty hoe and a filthy bucket against neighbors’ mowers and garden hoses. Since Russia expanded into the area three centuries ago, other Far Eastern nations — Japan, China, Korea — have risen, fallen, and then risen again, yet the Pacific Russia stayed unchanged: a string of fortresses guarding a pristine coast.
Every leader in Russia’s modern history had promised to develop it, and keeping with the tradition President Vladimir Putin in 2014 ordered another overhaul. The first casualty of the campaign was a group of local officials, including the governor of Sakhalin. Accused of embezzlement, they were arrested in front of TV cameras. The second victim was Putin’s long-suffering stand-in, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, dispatched to the Pacific to show that Moscow cared.
The highlight of Medvedev’s trip was the tour of the southern Kuril Islands, snatched from Japan by Stalin at the end of World War II and disputed by the two nations ever since. Obliged to climb unkempt pathways and make sad faces at the shantytowns in a territory annexed 70 years ago yet still untouched by development, the prime minister appeared lost, apparently not sure what he could do about all that. Yet he was under strict orders from the president to act, and to act fast.
Back in Moscow, Medvedev put experts to work, but he must have recruited the wrong pool of professionals because the resulting program read more like a fantasy novel than a business plan, its substantive part magic spells and lucky numbers.
The biggest (you could also call it the only) city on the coast, Vladivostok, was proclaimed a tax-free trade hub, or “porto franco.” Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands suddenly sprouted “three territories of accelerated growth.” With much fanfare, the largest among the disputed islands, Iturup (Etorofu to the Japanese), opened an airport designated as “international,” but with just three flights a week, and those going to the underwhelming capital of Sakhalin, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (Toyohara until 1945), it is just a glorified airstrip. Tellingly, its runway can’t accommodate anything bigger than a Bombardier turboprop.
Knowing deep down that the plan lacked luster, in November the Kremlin threw in a grandiose homestead act: every Russian citizen in the world was now entitled to 1 hectare of land in the Far Eastern tundra and taiga.
First, this is the kind of a deal when you are offered something that no one, including you, wants. Second, the offer comes from a government that is not known for keeping its word, least of all with property rights.
Government-ordered confiscations and sales at gunpoint have become a fixture of modern Russian life, and with practices like that in place, not just the future of the megalomaniac homestead enterprise but virtually any economic growth remains problematic.
As long as expropriations keep coming with the regularity of the monsoon, it doesn’t matter what you call Vladivostok — porto franco, Cuba Libre or even New Singapore — it isn’t going to make it more attractive to investors, bar the interesting category of entrepreneurs making money by writing off business losses on their tax returns.
It is little wonder that foreign companies take their capital elsewhere. The strongest economy in the region, China, is now more interested in doing business with Africa than with its northern neighbor. Moscow’s hope is that Vladivostok will become a hub of the transcontinental transportation system, but the most recent incarnation of the Silk Road bypasses Russia: Launched by an international consortium in 2015, the chain of railroads connects China with the Black Sea via Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The permanent Russian population in the Pacific has always been thin. As long as businessmen come to Vladivostok or Sakhalin to make a fast buck and then run, the area will remain a colonial periphery. For things to change, several momentous shifts have to occur. The state needs to come to terms with the fact that property is not a government contract to be awarded or taken away “just because.” For the moneyed class to stay on the underdeveloped coast, it has to feel part of the bigger region. But how can you expect individuals to integrate in the Pacific Rim when Russia treats both Japan and America as adversaries?
It is very hard to see crony capitalism and xenophobia leaving the Russian political stage any time soon. Furthermore, when and if they do, the Pacific coast will be among the last regions in the country to feel the impact.
In its existing configuration, with everything lucrative limited to the European part of the country, and everything really lucrative just to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia is simply not fit to be a Pacific power. It is too big not to have pockets of underdevelopment, too poor to be able to fix them all, and too Eurocentric to give precedence to the Pacific provinces.
Twenty-five years ago, as a young Far East analyst, I happened to be part of a prior effort to revitalize Russian Pacific. It would be unfair to say that things haven’t changed since then, because they have.
Back in the day, the coast was closed to visitors, Russian and foreign alike, and in 1990, to take one of the first groups of Americans to Vladivostok, I had to secure the permission of the head of the General Staff of the Soviet armed forces.
Obviously, now people, goods and services move to and around the Russian Pacific freely, yet the region has failed to partake in the unprecedented economic growth of other parts of the country.
Moreover, one could argue that, somewhat perversely, the new freedoms had an adverse effect, facilitating the exodus of ambitious young people and making the task of replacing them with temporarily stand-ins easy. When, say, a talented engineer in Sakhalin quits his job to move to Moscow or Vancouver, the company just flies in a short-term contractor to replace him.
When gaps in talent can be filled in by transcontinental commuters, there is nothing to stop the brain drain — a situation typical for a colonial exclave, and that’s exactly what Russian Far East is in the eyes of the Kremlin planners. Look at their current revitalization program: The “hectare to everyone” campaign is just a politically acceptable way of saying “Settlers Wanted”; the invitation to mainland Russians to go visit Iturup parallels the established European tradition of vacationing in overseas colonies (French tourists on Reunion or the Dutch on Aruba).
The Russian Far East remains a territory with lots of potential but little ambition or character: too disconnected from the rest of the country to be an organic part of it, and too lethargic to forge a discrete identity.
When the Soviet Union was crumbling, the Russian Pacific developed a nascent separatist movement, not nearly as strong as secessionism in the Baltic states, but probably comparable to the political awakening in another imperial backwater, Belarus.
At this point, self-awareness in the region seems to be at a nadir, and, indicative of that spirit of resignation, the fastest growing jobs are with the industry servicing pipelines carrying Russian gas to the industrial parks of China.
Russian-American writer Constantine Pleshakov’s books include “The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima.”