Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Infrastructure Disasters Radicalizing Ethnic Groups, Russian Regions

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 25 – Despite President Dmitry Medvedev’s suggestion that all the talk about a “technological collapse” was so much “barking at the moon,” the Russian Federation appears likely, given Moscow’s unwillingness to maintain existing facilities, to face more disasters of the kind that hit the Sayan-Shushen Hydro-Electric Dam last week.
And such technological disasters in turn are likely to become political as well not only leading the powers that be to try to find individuals and groups to blame, including as already happened last week, journalists who try to report what is going on, but also to the radicalization of non-Russian ethnic groups and Russian regions that are the victims of Moscow’s policies.
The campaign by the Evenks against the construction of a hydroelectric dam that would destroy their historic lands has already attracted widespread attention, with commentators drawing parallels between their struggle and the plots of two classic novels, Valentin Rasputin’s “Farewell to Matyora” and Edvard Topol’s “Red Snow.”
But this week, at an international conference in Anadyr, Larisa Abryutina, vice president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, warned that “the crisis situation in which [Russia’s] indigenous peoples find themselves now could significantly worsen in the event of natural or technogenic catastrophes”
Saying that the Northern Peoples must be kept “informed” about the problems of dams and other facilities, something that has not always happened in Russia, Abryutina argued that ensuring that disasters do not destroy these peoples is “one of the most significant tasks of the contemporary world not only for [them] but for the [other] peoples of Russia and the entire planet” (www.raipon.info/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=261:2009-08-24-10-00-29&catid=1:2009-03-11-15-49-27).
Abryutina’s comments hint at the problems with the numerically small peoples of the North that Moscow will face if there are more accidents, but Yury Solozobov in an essay posted online today suggests that accidents like that at the Sayan-Shushen dam could split the ethnic majority ethnic Russian portions of the country (www.apn.ru/publications/article21877.htm).
The Moscow analyst notes that “no one is talking about either the further development of events [around Sayan-Shushen] or about the long-term consequences of this terrible accident, including geo-economic and geopolitical ones.” And yet, he suggests, these could prove to be the more important.
The problems with the dam, as many experts have already pointed out, could mean that the accident that occurred on August 17th is only the first stage of a disaster there, with some even pointing to the danger of a complete collapse that would send “a tsunami” down the course of the Yenesey all the way to Krasnoyarsk.”
And while few specialists are talking about that outcome – although some are as a way of considering what should be done now that there has been a breakdown – “no one today can responsibly give a 100-percent guarantee that a catastrophe of such dimensions can be avoided,” Solozobov says.
Were that disaster to happen, he continues, the transportation links along and across the Yenesey would be destroyed, and that could lead to the division of the Russian Federation “into two parts – the Western and the Eastern,” a development that he says would “inevitably give a strong push” to “Siberian separatism.”
“From the point of view of geo-economics,” the Moscow analyst suggests, “contemporary Russia is divided into three basic parts. Their borders are as follows: the Urals between European Russia and Western Siberia and the Yenesey River as the natural watershed between Western and Eastern Siberia.”
Accidents like the one on August 17 will tend to push the European part of Russia and Western Siberia “toward one another” as well as toward closer ties with the European Union, something that elites and the population in those sections of the country want in order to Europeanize Russia.
The situation to the east of the Yenesey, in that event, would be “entirely different.” There are far fewer people – only 12 million but overwhelmingly ethnic Russian – and little industry but immense reserves of as yet largely undeveloped natural resources. Moscow may lack the capital to develop them, but various former countries have it and would like to.
Their participation in the exploitation of the natural resources of Eastern Siberia, the Moscow analyst says, would of course raise the question of control. On the one hand, he says, that isn’t a problem as the Russian constitution does not contain the sentence “The territory of the Russian Federation is unified and indivisible.”
But on the other, he suggests in what will strike almost all readers as the most provocative part of his argument, “this scenario does not mean the necessary political division of Russia.” Instead, it could mean the appearance of a situation found elsewhere around the world: “’one country with two territories and two systems.’”
If Solozobov is explicitly speculative, a comment on Irkutsk Babr.ru site today is not, and its pointed words about the Sayan-Shushen dam disaster and why Moscow bears responsibility for that and for other disasters likely in the coming months and years are likely to ring alarm bells in the Russian capital (news.babr.ru/?IDE=80447).
Despite Dmitry Medvedev’s dismissive comments about the possibility of “a technological collapse,” experts at the site’s information center point out, even the Russian President “could not avoid acknowledging” that Russia’s infrastructure is in a terrible state, although the site notes, he could now openly admit the reason why.
That is to be found, the information center of Babr.ru says, in the following tragic fact: “since 1991, there has not taken place practically any renewal of industrial equipment.” Instead, “the so-called ‘oligarchs’ with the silent blessing of the powers that be extracted all the resources from this infrastructure without thinking at all about its renewal.”
Unfortunately, Babr.ru continues, the failure to attend to infrastructure needs is not limited to dams. It extends to the housing stock in many regions and, as this winter may very well demonstrate, to heating and electric grids in parts of the country, shortcomings that will shut down many “population centers.”
And this, the Babr.ru analysts conclude, represents part and parcel of “the completely vicious raw materials and colonial policy which is being consistently carried out by the existing political regime in Russia” and which is inflicting so much suffering on so many, especially east of the Urals.

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