Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Some Post-Soviet States Light Up the Sky; Others Don’t

Paul Goble

Baku, January 15 – Comparing the economic development of the post-Soviet states is something like comparing apples and oranges: the 15 started at different points, have different resources and possibilities, and thus rank very differently depending upon the metrics used to assess them.
But now one observer of trends there has suggested using an unusual tool to determine how these countries are doing both over time and relative to one another – satellite photographs of the region at night that show which of these countries have the kind of economic develop that is lighting up the sky and which ones don’t.
And while many of the results that the Live Journal blogger reports are not surprising – the Russian cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are the brightest spots on the map and lights in Georgia have gone out as that country has suffered industrial decline – others are rather more unexpected and intriguing.
A series of colorful satellite maps of the lights in the post-Soviet states at night is available at http://himmelwerft.livejournal.com/3759.html. Commentary on what they show can be found both there and conveniently for those with slower connections --because the maps themselves are not included -- at http://contrtv.ru/common/2578/.
According to the Living Journal writer, the Russian Federation which included the industrial core of the former Soviet Union suffered less from the collapse of that country than did many of the others, although regional changes in development are clearly visible from space at night.
Smaller Russians cities and rural areas have gone dark as industries there have declined and people have moved to Moscow and St. Petersburg. The extreme North, which suffered the most initially, is now coming back. But the cities along the Trans-Siberian railroad, the “golden chain” tying the country together, have not.
One regions where the lights have gone off and stayed off is war-torn Chechnya and the other troubled republics of the North Caucasus, locations which lit up the night sky two decades ago but which now are almost completely dark and, Moscow’s claims to the contrary, show no signs of brightening anytime soon.
Ukraine and Moldova have seen their capital cities become brighter but the other parts of these two countries have slipped into the dark. Troubled Georgia has gone dark except for the dimming lights of Tbilisi and the increasingly bright ones of its Black Sea ports. Armenia too has darkened over the decade.
But “the most interesting thing” these maps show, the Russian author says, is what is taking place in Azerbaijan. There, relative stability and the rapid growth of that country’s oil industry has allowed it to light up the sky, with Baku becoming the new bright star, one waxing even faster than the two Russia capitals.
Across the Caspian, the lights have dimmed throughout Central Asia. Rural areas there are now even darker than they were, the maps suggest, and while the cities have grown in population, they have not expanded industrially and thus in terms of the kind of power consumption that would allow them to stand out from the surrounding darkness.
But perhaps the greatest “concentration” of new lights in this enormous region is to be found in the Baltic countries. Having severed most of their economic ties to the former Soviet republics and linked their fate to Europe, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are now tied to the latter by a chain of bright lights visible from space.
Forty years ago, Western students of the Soviet Union were often advised to make their first visit to that country by flying at night from London to Moscow. For the first hour or so after take-off, such passengers could look down and see the bright lights of Western European countries.
Then when they crossed the intra-German border, they would notice that the lights had dimmed, and when they reached Poland, the lights would grow still fainter. Finally, when the flights carrying these academic specialists crossed the Polish-Soviet border, the land below would be almost dark -- until they reached the Soviet capital.
Now, with these new and remarkably detailed satellite maps, those who track developments in the post-Soviet states have a better or at least more “objective” way to assess the situation, although this measure too must be supplemented by other data to provide a full picture of just what is going on.

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