Russia pursues its destiny in the great northeast
OFTEN confused with Siberia, the Russian Far East (Dalny Vostok Rossii, in Russian) lies in between Siberia and Russia's Pacific coast, forming the northeastern corner of Asia. The taiga-, tundra- and farmland-dominated RFE constitutes one-third of Russia's total land mass. With a population of 7 million, representing more than 25 ethnicities, the population density of one-plus person per square kilometer is one of the lowest in the world.
Reminiscent of American westward expansion, the conquest of Siberia and the RFE is graphically portrayed in a telling painting in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg depicting a Cossack officer brandishing his gleaming saber as he unmercifully cuts down a resisting native. Leading Russia's manifest destiny eastward of the Ural Mountains were hunters, trappers, runaway serfs and criminals who established small encampments and villages of ethnic Russians that soon began to multiply as the market for fur in European Russia grew.
Territorial expansion led to more territorial expansion at others' expense.
In 1689 the first of what Chinese call the "unequal treaties," the Treaty of Nerchinsk, was signed with the weak Ching Dynasty ruling China, resulting in the loss of Outer Manchuria to Russia. From 1856 to 1857, Russia seized Chinese territory north of the Amur River (Heilongjiang in Chinese). A painting in the Khabarovsk Regional History Museum strikingly illustrates the signing of the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 between overly confident Russian Empire builder Count Nikolai Muravyov and a demure Ching Dynasty official. In 1860 all land east of the Ussuri River was ceded to Russia, thus extending Russia from the Baltic to the Pacific. As the Trans-Siberian Railroad continued expanding to hold European and Asian Russia together, more and more Russians transplanted themselves in the RFE.
IN 1917, Japanese, U.S., British and French forces arrived in Vladivostok hoping to prevent Germans from using the region's resources in its war effort and to support anti-Bolshevist forces led by Adm. Kolchak. Despite Kolchak's defeat and the departure of Allied troops, Japanese troops remained and in 1920 created the Far Eastern Republic as a buffer against the Soviet Union. In 1922 the FER came to an end as Japanese troops left, and the area was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Despite the ongoing natural gas bonanza in Sakhalin Island and even with an abundance of other natural resources including oil, iron ore, lignite, lead, zinc, silver, the Kolyma Gold Mines, lumber, farmland and fish, plus some iron and steel production, oil refining and lumbering, the RFE has never been economically self-sufficient. As a result, the area has been highly reliant on subsidies from Moscow, causing Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2002 to admonish area governors to reduce their dependence on Moscow's dole.
In the underpopulated, resource-rich RFE, many residents feel abandoned by the distant Eurocentric government in Moscow, and neighboring China is seen as an economic and security threat. Kitai is the Russian word for China, which is said to be derived from "Khitan." The Khitan were originally a tribe from today's northern and northeastern China known for their warlike qualities. Mention of the RFE instantly elicits a Chinese response that the land is theirs: "It was stolen from us." A former translator in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is wary of Chinese intentions since they always refer to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, the two principle cities in the RFE, by their respective Chinese names Boli and Haisanwei, rather than by their Russian names.
Developed by the occupying Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s, northeastern China was one of China's key industrial centers as Mao Zedong assumed power on Oct. 1, 1949. Rich in natural resources, the area abounded in steel mills and such heavy industries as the Red Flag Automobile Corp. Times change. China's post-1978 economic development has taken place mainly in Beijing, Shanghai, the Pearl River Delta (between Hong Kong and Guangzhou) and in a few other places along the coast that offer speedy access to the sea.
CHINA'S TWO northernmost provinces, Heilongjiang and Jilin, have no access to the sea. Now known as China's rust belt, unemployment soon could reach 15 percent, causing many of the 100 million residents to become politically restless. Normally considered a docile rubber stamp, the Chinese National People's Congress perfunctorily approves government policy. This year, northeastern representatives to the Congress boldly reflected the people's concerns by calling out for economic remedies to be developed for the region. Given the economic plight of the area helps to explain why Falun Gong, a spiritual organization that masses have thronged to join looking for some escape from the travails of daily life, was founded in northeastern China.
Once a predominately Chinese city, Vladivostok often is compared to San Francisco because it is situated on a series of hills overlooking a bay. Stalin's ethnic cleansing of the 1930s emptied the city of its Chinese population. Today, resurgent Chinese influence can be seen in the 100,000 Chinese tourists who annually visit the city where they can legally gamble. A growing number of Chinese have become Russian citizens or have permanent residence, and the long, porous Sino-Russian border abets growing illegal Chinese immigration. In 2002, Chinese invested an estimated $200 million in restaurants, hotels and other real estate in the RFE.
WISHING TO remain anonymous, a director of a well-known Khabarovsk museum welcomed the money into the RFE; others are not as sanguine and fear Chinese takeover. To increase the size of the population, immigration of ethnic Russians from former Soviet republics is strongly encouraged. To protect Russian natural resource wealth, in 2002 the Russian parliament triumphed in preventing the China National Petroleum Corp. from acquiring Slavneft, a major Russian oil producer. When it withdrew its bid, the CNPC was willing to pay 75 percent ($1.3 billion) more than the winning Russian tender.
Besides being likened to San Francisco, Vladivostok often is called "Russia's Dodge City" because of its often raucous reputation. In 2003 the entire RFE had the worst per-person crime rate in the country, according to Russian Minster for Internal Affairs Boris Gryzlov in an interview with Bertil Linter in Asia Pacific Media Services Ltd. Luckily, streets now are a lot safer than in the early 1990s when crime bosses were in control. In those days, smuggling, kidnappings, drive-by shootings and car bombings were everyday events. KGB types never much cared for crime syndicates, so it was not surprising that former KGB operative Putin cracked down on organized crime. However, better-organized Chinese triads (organized crime gangs) have taken the place of their Russian counterparts and thrive on the civil order that Putin has created plus existent police and local government corruption.
Once considered the strongest of the five fleets in the Russian Navy, the Pacific Fleet is headquartered in Vladivostok with additional ports throughout the RFE. Various estimates of the fleet's strength average out to 50 submarines, 65 surface vessels and 200 combat aircraft. Personnel strength is estimated at 60,000. Like the U.S. Pacific Command, headquartered at Camp Smith, the Pacific Fleet's area of operation is huge, running north to the northernmost coast of Russia, south to the Straits of Magellan and east into the Western Pacific.
DURING SOVIET times the Pacific Fleet also commanded the Russian Indian Ocean Squadron. Due to post-Soviet cost-saving measures, men and materiel have been cut back. Russian navy vessels do not train as much as in Soviet days, and Sovremenny-class destroyers designed "to kill" U.S. aircraft carriers often can be found tied up close to PF headquarters. Nevertheless, the Pacific Fleet has carried out joint training exercises with the Chinese, Indian and U.S. navies.
Vladivostok, like Honolulu, enjoys the economic benefits of a large military presence although they are not as plentiful as before. Luckily for the PF and Vladivostok, Russian navy financing is growing although the navy has not yet created a workable doctrine attuned to today's world and contemporary Russia. Nor has Russia determined the nature of the more prominent role it is reported to desire in East Asia. According to Rouben Azizian, a Russian specialist at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Russia's evolving role is focused on "supplying arms to China, India, and hopefully Association of Southeast Asian Nation members; marketing energy amidst all of the competition for its resources; operating in a multilateral fashion through such organizations as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, rather than just carrying out foreign policy based on bilateral relations."
LIKE RUSSIA itself, the RFE has not really chartered a clear role for its future. It lacks a sense of what its economic life should be. It is handicapped in achieving such a sense due to its demographic problems, corruption, fears about China, the uncertain direction of the Russian government and the nature of its relationship to Moscow. Until satisfied, such concerns will make it difficult to establish more economically cooperative relations with bordering Asian countries, which is felt to be a long-term solution to achieving more prosperous times.
Bill Sharp is adjunct professor of East Asian international relations at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes for the Star-Bulletin monthly. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org