Friday, March 27, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow is ‘Losing’ the Russian Far East, Journalist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 27 – Having held on to the Far East during the Russian Civil War and during the wild 1990s, Moscow is now “losing” that enormous region because of “the idiocy of bureaucrats” in the center who pay attention to it only when there is “a flood, earthquake, volcano eruption or visit by the president or prime minister,” a Russian commentator says.
In an article in today’s “Novaya gazeta,” Yekaterina Glikman argues that because of Moscow’s neglect in most cases and foolish actions in others, just about the only thing that the Russian Far East has “in common” with Moscow is “the Russian language” -- and that is “too little to make one feel part of a single country” (
This process, she says, is likely to accelerate when a new directive of the Federal Customs Service goes into force on March 30. That document, which has “the neutral title of ‘On measures of declaring particular types of control of goods,” is going to have anything but a neutral impact on Russia’s Pacific Rim.
On that date, Moscow will require that all metal ores and products from the Far East go through the port of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a port lacking rail connections with the rest of the country, and not through the ports of Vladivostok, Nakhodka, Vanino and Pose’yet, all of which are railheads and through which such commodities been going.
That will mean that it will be necessary for Russian exporters to load such goods on boats, something that will add four to five days to the process, throw an increasing number of Russians in the ports that can no longer be used out of work, and add fuel to the fire to the two most recent Moscow actions that have sparked protests in the region.
Those, of course, involved in the first instance Vladimir Putin’s decision to try to promote domestic wood processing by introducing prohibitive export quotas and in the second, the Russian prime minister’s desire to promote domestic car manufacturing by introducing prohibitive import quotas on foreign cars.
These actions, Glikman continues, compromise the interests of Russia itself – they make the country a less attractive path for goods to flow between Europe and Asia – but they hit the interests of the population of the Russian Far East by reinforcing the view among people there that Moscow is not paying attention to the needs of that region.
The journalist goes on to describe a variety of Moscow-mandated actions by customs officials, most of which involve enormous delays and great costs that have “neutralized” the advantage that the Trans-Siberian railway would otherwise have as a basic “transportation corridor” between Europe and Asia.
She notes that there is now just one country whose ports are more difficult for importers and exports to clear than Russia: “this is North Korea,” which of course has sought to cut itself off from the world in order to protect the particular social, economic and political system its leaders want.
Appended to Glikman’s article are the comments of two people with a direct knowledge of these problems. Mikhail Shchukin, the director of the Union of Russian Ship Owners, says that “in the Far East, the entire economy is being destroyed before [his] eyes,” the result of policies that are infuriating an already angry population.
And Mikhail Voytenko, the editor of an Internet publication on shipping, adds that what is going on in the ports of the Russian Far East now as a result of Moscow’s misguided and clearly thoughtless policies has created “a situation that [the great 19th century Russian satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin would envy.”
Obviously, even the actions that Moscow has taken so far are unlikely to provoke enough people in the Russian Far East to call for independence, but the increasing willingness of people in that region to hold that up that even as a distant threat shows just how explosive the situation there is becoming, exactly the opposite trend that the center has advertised and hoped for.

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