Thursday, October 22, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Neither Moscow nor Beijing Wants the Russian Far East to Be Independent, Russian Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 22 – Neither Moscow nor Beijing wants the Russian Far East to be independent, a Russian analyst argues, but the two have very different reasons: Russian leaders fear such an entity would become a Chinese satellite while the China authorities are afraid that it would exacerbate Sino-Russian relations or fall under a third power like the US.
That does not mean, Aleksandr Kustaryov argues, that the status quo there will remain unchanged. Rather, the two countries will move to form a condominium over the region, the way states have sometimes done where “the agencies of geopolitical sovereignty, the constitution, property and population do not correspond” (
But that conclusion, just like Vladimir Putin’s assertion two months ago that “Siberia and the Far East are ours and will remain ours forever,” will do little to calm the fears of those who see the recent agreement between Moscow and Beijing concerning Chinese exploitation of Russian natural resources east of the Urals.
These Russian and Chinese attitudes have a long history, Kustaryov says. “Colonization [of Siberia] was held back by the great distances” from European Russia “and by serfdom.” Moreover, he says, “it is not excluded the metropolitan center itself did not really want the active colonization of the Far East.”
The reason for that, he suggests, is that on the Russian side, “the metropolitan center instinctively felt that the more massive would be the Slavic population of the Far East, the more difficult it would be to retain it within the orbit of the metropolitan center,” just as Britain lost its colonies in North America when the population there rose to a certain point.
The Chinese were also historically constrained even though Beijing has long faced demographic pressures. The climate of the regions to its north was anything but welcoming, and for most of the last several hundred years, the Chinese empire has been militarily and politically weak.
The calculations of each side changed during the industrial era, Kustaryov argues, and China gained an advantage. While Moscow found it “very difficult” to hold people in the Far East -- “Neither special benefits nor force (the GULAG) helped,” he says -- China was expanding demographically, economically and politically.
As a result of those contrasting trends, Kustaryov continues, “the Far East is being converted into a zone where the agencies of geopolitical sovereignty, constitutions, property and population do not correspond,” something that is far from “a unique case” around the world but a pattern that challenges the existing paradigm of international relations.
(Among the other places where this pattern holds, he suggests, are the southwestern states of the US with their rapidly growing Latino populations and the countries of Western Europe who are now “under strong demographic pressure from the Muslim world of the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa.”)
In relatively distant historical times, the Moscow analyst points out, “such population shifts would inevitably be followed by the separation of these zones from their old sovereign and the declaration of new states which would then pass into the orbit of influence of a new sovereign or simply be annexed by it.”
But in more recent periods and especially since World War II, “such cases already have become rare,” Kustaryov notes. “The classical example is Texas which first was settled by colonists from the US, then separated from Mexico and became an independent state, and finally joined the United States as a state itself.”
“Can one think that the zones which are arising now at the crossroads of South and North will follow the path of Texas?” the Moscow analyst inquires. “There is no clear answer” either generally or in any particular case, be it in North America, Europe or Siberia and the Russian Far East, but the bar for doing so is certainly higher than it was earlier.
It is far from certain “which tendencies will turn out to be stronger.” In some cases, clearly, “the local political and bureaucratic establish can be drawn to one side, property owners to another and ‘the people’ to a third.” And one should not assume that “the Slavs living in the Far East will prefer Moscow or the Chinese, Beijing.”
Given “the current world order,” the Texas scenario is the least probable for the Russian Far East given that “even very weak states are now inviolable” and that wars, except those directed against terrorism, are viewed as a violation of the international order and even those, as Chechnya and Iraq have shown, are seldom “effective.”
Far more likely, Kustaryov says, is “the transformation of the Far East into a condominium” because both metropolitan countries are “least of all interested in an independent state” there given that neither of them can predict “the future geopolitical orientation” of such a formation.
“Moscow has reasons to fear that the Far East would become a satellite of China,” he argues, and “Beijing has reasons to be concerned, although perhaps, less weighty ones,” that an independent Far East would become a satellite of Russia’s. But both have reasons to fear the orientation of such a new state toward a third: Washington, Tokyo, Tehran or someone else.”
The only way Kustaryov suggests an independent Far East could emerge then would be as a result of the breakdown of one or both of the existing “super-large geopolitical conglomerates” that the current Russian Federation and Peoples Republic of China represent. But even then, there is no certainty that there would emerge a new state in the region.
Instead, the Moscow analyst concludes, a Russian-Chinese condominium over the Far East to which Moscow and Beijing appear to be moving will represent yet another effort to define places in the world where “sovereignty, property and citizenship” do not correspond and may even lead, at least in such zones, to “a global order without states in general.”

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