Vienna, September 28 – At a time when some commentators in Moscow are talking about seizing parts of Ukraine, their counterparts in Kyiv are asking whether Moscow can hold the Russian Far East, highlighting the longstanding ties between Ukraine and that region and recalling speculations during the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1960s.
To Ukrainians, the area between Vladivostok, Nakhodka and Khabarovsk is known as the “green triangle” (“zelenyi klin”) because that is a region to which thousands of Ukrainians moved in the decades before World War I to escape famine conditions at home, satisfy their land hunger, and help the Russian Empire hold its conquests there.
Ethnic Ukrainians in that region have played an important role ever since, not only providing much of the agricultural workforce, but attracting the attention of outside powers. During the Sino-Soviet conflict of the late 1960s, Beijing sought to win them and Ukraine itself to its side – or at least was famously criticized by Moscow for supposedly doing so.
Recently, Vitaly Kulik, the director of the Kyiv Center for Research on Problems of Civil Society, presented a report in the Ukrainian capital on the question “Will Russia Hold the Far East?” (hvylya.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=256:2009-06-03-10-53-01&catid=4:2009-04-12-12-01-18&Itemid=10).
In his remarks, Kulik addressed the intricate interrelationships of the attitudes of all residents in the Russian Far East toward Moscow, the growing role of China and other outside countries in its fate, and the specifically Ukrainian dimensions of social, economic and political developments there.
According to Kulik, who recently visited the region, residents of the Russian Far East are increasingly disconnected with the rest of Russia and at the same time increasingly linked to other countries. “An entire generation of young residents of the Far East has been born” who “have never been in Moscow but often have been in Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo.”
For such people, he said, “Moscow does not mean anything.” Indeed, “the word ‘russkiy’ and the identification ‘russkiy’ are conditional.” As a result, almost a third of the population in the Far East wants to send its children beyond the borders of Russia so that the latter can earn enough to have their parents join them.
Few have any interest in going to European Russia; many more are intrigued with the possibility of living in China. And the Chinese are exploiting with, with one Chinese writer insisting that “instability in Russia and stability in Beijing will push the local population [in the Far East] to make a choice in favor of Beijing.”
Moreover, and despite reports in the Russian media to the contrary, Kulik insisted, few residents in what is now the Russian Far East show much xenophobia toward the Chinese, most of whom when they come work in rural areas where the Russian population is rapidly declining rather than in the cities.
“The population of Primorsky kray,” he suggests, is “more tolerant in all relations to other nationalities,” one of the reasons is that “if you scratch a resident of Vladivostok, you find a Ukrainian, every second or third of which has relatives or some family ties with Ukraine or Ukrainians.”
For them like for the other residents of the Far East, “the main problem now,” officials there told Kulik, is not the Chinese but rather the Tajiks and Azerbaijanis. The Chinese do not create any serious difficulties, but the latter are viewed by most residents as sources of drugs and organized crime.
Because of Soviet assimilatory pressure, most people in the Russian Far East with Ukrainian pasts now identify as Russians or as Slavs, but “if in Moscow [such] assimilation is taking place quickly and is nearly complete by the second generation, in the Far East, [such people] remember that their grandfather was from Ukraine.”
This helps to give rise to certain now “latent separatist attitudes,” not as well-defined as a push for the creation of a Far Eastern Republic – such calls have more or less disappeared, Kulik says – but rather in a growing sense of opposition to Moscow in Vladivostok that leads to “sabotaging” anything the central Russian government tries to promote.
That explains why, Kulik said, Moscow had to send in outside OMON units when it wanted to crush demonstrations in Vladivostok concerning tariffs on the import of foreign cars. The local militia simply was not ready or able to crack down on people from its own community, he continued.
Such attitudes, both “anti-Moscow” and “anti-Kremlin” not only “exist” but have become “very strong especially now after the introduction [by the Russian central government] of these prohibitions and the destruction of ‘gray’ business,’” And as a result, Russian identity has “already lost its importance for residents of the Far East.”
Moscow has tried to counter this by “taking out the whip,” but the result of that, Kulik insisted, has been to drive residents of the Far East further away from it and make them more ready to cooperate with China, the Koreas, Japan, and the United States, a very different outcome than the central Russian government clearly hoped for.
And he concludes that although “there are no more Ukrainian accents” in the language spoken in the Russian Far East, there are many people there who remain keenly interested in Ukraine and also in developing ties with China, to the point that they appear ready to have street signs there in Chinese as well as in Russian.
That pattern may lack the drama of past declarations of a Far Eastern Republic, Kulik implied, but this drifting away from Moscow could accelerate still further as a result of any belligerent moves by Russia against Ukraine or simply as a result of the very different trajectories of the Russian and the Chinese states.