Thursday, December 30, 2010

Window on Eurasia: For the 21st Century, Russia Needs a ‘Window on Asia,’ Commentator Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, December 30 – Peter the Great moved the Russian capital to Saint Petersburg to have “a window on Europe” which was then the most advanced place on earth, but now Moscow should consider moving the country’s capital in the Russian Far East to have “a window on Asia,” which is emerging as the most advanced continent in the 21st century.
That is the conclusion Russian nationalist commentator Yaroslave Butakov reaches on the basis of a survey of past Russian practice and the current state of discussions about the possibility that the Russian state will decide to move the country’s political capital away from Moscow (
As Butakov points out, “conversations about shifting the capital” have been going on for some time but are now intensifying. Given Russia’s “enormous size,” he says, it might seem that there are a large number of possibilities, but in fact, “a careful consideration” of this issue shows that the number of good prospects “is not so large.”
One of the reasons this remains unclear to most people discussing this issue, Butakov says, is that they are talking about it not in terms of the needs of the country as a whole and over the long term but rather to solve particular regional problems. But “shifting the capital only for that end” is neither necessary nor sufficient.
At the same time, the opponents of shifting the Russian capital typically forget that regardless of what happens to the political center of the country, Moscow “all the same will play the role of New York. Only on an even greater scale,” especially given existing economic arrangements and inertia.
Despite the likelihood that current elites would pocket much of the money intended for the construction of a new capital and that the rest of the population would thus gain less than it should, Butakov continues, there is all the same good reason “to talk about shifting the capital of Russia if one adopts the perspective of the development of the country.”
Under the best circumstances, “shifting the capital ought to ‘kill several birds with one stone,’ that it,it should make possible the most successful and effective solution of many problems of the country among which helping Moscow solve its ‘overload’ is far from being the first.”
Among these problems could be the recovery of depressed regions, the re-industrialization of company towns, and the development of high technology industry, as well as the “more profitable and effective” participation in the international “division of labor” that is emerging.
Unlike many countries, Butakov points out, Russia has frequently changed the location of its capital over the last millennium. And as his survey of this history shows, it has done so for a variety of reasons, including political control, military security, and linking the country to more rapidly developing outside countries.
Today, most discussions about shifting the capital focus on the possibility of moving it to some existing city in Siberia, but if the capital were simply moved to Yekaterinburg or Krasnoyarsk, the country would gain “simply yet another megalopolis with all the problems common to that status.”
To avoid that outcome, Butakov argues, it is useful to remember why Petere the Great moved the Russian capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg at the start of the 18th century. He did it to open “a window on Europe,” to allow the ideas and developments in the most advanced continent of that time to flow into Russia.
While not everyone approved, Peter’s decision provides a model – but with this difference. Today, the most advanced region of the planet at least in prospect is not Western Europe but rather the Asian-Pacific region, as various experts including Henry Kissinger have pointed out over recent decades..
“For many,” Butakov acknowledges, “the idea of shifting the Russian capital to the Far East will seem absurd, exactly as the idea of buildings a new capital in the swampy mouth of the Neva seemed three hundred years ago.” But a careful consideration of taking this step shows that is just as correct as Peter’s was.
One of the chief objections to moving the capital, Butakov points out, is from this perspective one of the chief reasons for doing so. Just as Peter moved his capital to project power and to defend his conquests, so too moving the capital to the Far East would be a way of projecting power and defending Russian interests against a rising China.
And there is even a place, in the triangle of the cities of Svobodny, Shimanovsk and Uglegorsk in the Amur oblast which would help promote exactly that stance. There is already a military facility there, and plans are underway to move the Russian space port to the outskirts of Uglegorsk by 2018.
As Butakov relates, Yuri Krupnov, a longtime advocate of moving the capital eastward, pointed out at a press conference on December 23 ( putting the capital in that triangle would not only ensure that Russia would retain Siberia and the Far East but that this region would be linked to and thus become part of “ the center of world development.”

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