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by Vladimir LAMIN, RAS Corresponding Member, Director General of the Joint Institute of History, Philology and Philosophy, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author. - Ed.
Without going into prognostication specifics for Siberia and the Russian Far East - whether within Russia or outside - all such forecasts proceed from the population imbalance, above all. On the one hand, we have vast Siberian expanses with a sparse population; and on the other, the overpopulated neighbor country, China. This demographic situation gives food enough to sundry scenarios for the future, all of them equally with a dramatic, tragic ending.
Scenario One. The most probable or, according to many authors, well-nigh inevitable. The depopulation trend in the Russian Far East, losing the native people of ethnic Russians and indigenous ethnic groups, and the influx of ethnic Chinese (regulated but poorly or not regulated at all) through peaceful infiltration across our liberalized frontiers will be like two polar vectors working at cross-purposes and ultimately combining into a resultant force, insurmountable for the economically weakened Russia, that has forfeited its political clout and weight as a great power. The "chinization" of the Russian Far East could come to a critical pass; and then the rulers of China ("Celestial Empire"), showing care for their compatriots in Russia, would come up with stiff political demands. The "creeping occupation" of Siberia and the Far East could end in the Chinese annexation of these Russian territories.
Scenario Two. The possibility of broad economic expansion on the part of the United States and Canada. Here two things pave the ground for their presence in our country's northeast, first and foremost. One is palpably present in the maladroit practice of what we call "northern shipments", or delivery of essentials to our northern territories. The economic potential of the United States and Canada will, no doubt, enable them to cope far better than what we can do given our slender resources and capabilities. There could be a rerun of what we had at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries: merchandise not of our, Russian, make flowing into Chukotka, Kamchatka and deep inland; and local products going the other way, elsewhere than Russia. Obviously, US and Canadian salesmen will go beyond commodity exports and imports pure and will try to consolidate the foothold for the presence and further expansion of their capital in Siberia's northeast by establishing appropriate infrastructures.
Due to the traditionally very low population density in these parts and the ongoing exodus of native people, we cannot rely on the demographic and economic potential built up in the years of planned socialist management. This potential is way below par. But on the other hand, the probable US-Canadian economic expansion has open-ended opportunities - from commercial outlets and humanitarian actions to infrastructures set up for tapping Siberia's rich natural resources.
Something like that was taking place in Siberia's northwest back in the 1890s when the "gold fever" spilled from Alaska to Chukotka and then on to the Pacific Coast all the way to the Amur's estuary. The North-Eastern Siberian Society active there was but a front for the aggressive thrust of US commercial activities in mainland Siberia and on islands off the Pacific and Arctic coasts. It took the Soviet government years and years-up to the late 1920s-to force the closure of American trading stations, and that despite the vigorous, tough measures.
Scenario Three. Its plot is connected with a transcontinental line (TCL) which, if built, will link Eurasia's and America's transportation systems through an auto-and-railway tunnel across the Bering Strait. The very idea is old-hat. It was a highly controversial and emotional issue debated in Russian government quarters, among the public and in the press up until the year 1907.
The Bering Strait project was technically feasible, it was argued then-as it is now, by the way. That tunnel was to connect US- Canadian railways with the newly built Trans-Siberian trunk railroad. All that was visualized as part of the
Paris-New York railway line, cutting across Siberia and Alaska. The opponents pointed to the threat that the project posed to Russia's territorial integrity. That project was just a coverup for the vicious plans to annex northeastern Siberia to the United States, they said. We cannot tell how well-founded all those fears and worries were. It makes no sense to indulge in guesswork, all the more so as that old project of 100 years ago is staging a comeback.
Today some American experts have revitalized the idea to link the shores of Asia and America by a tunnel to be laid across the Bering Strait along the line of the Diomede Islands. But unlike their forerunners, the authors of the present initiative zero in on technical aspects. Tentatively, the Bering Strait TCL could be realized in the first quarter of this century. Financing will be no problem. In addition to the railway line, the projected tunnel will be housing modern communications like cableways, pipelines, power transmission systems and so forth.
The present promoters of the Bering Strait TCL are tight-lipped about the possible consequences it will entail for Russia, an issue of harsh controversy a hundred years ago. They, the Americans, kind of imply: there could be no plausible counterarguments. Meanwhile, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries many people in this country - from members of His Majesty's Russian Geographical Society to merchants and entrepreneurs of the Amur and Primorye (Maritime) territories-exploded in protest against plans of an American-French syndicate eager for a concession to build a railway trunk line between Paris and New York. They were indignant over the request to cede a territory about the size of France for the exploitation of its natural resources over 99 years.
The public furor over the issue spurred a group of Russian entrepreneurs east of Lake Baikal and in the Amur territory to apply for a concession for building a Russian Pacific railroad, similar in its outline to the American-French project but with no tunnel to link Siberia and Alaska. The Russian applicants claimed that, should their foreign rivals get a concession, the Siberia- Alaska project with a tunnel across the Bering Strait would operate like a giant pump that would be pumping out Russia's wealth to make foreigners wax rich. But the Russian Pacific railroad, they argued, opened up good prospects to use this wealth for the nation's welfare.
In the meantime Russian government quarters were making a close study of the Siberia-Alaska project. Playing first fiddle in the capital city, St. Petersburg, in support of the foreign idea were Grand Prince N. Romanoff, President of the State Defense Council, and Baron V. Frederix, Minister for Court Affairs. However, facing the tidal wave of public protest, these two top officials agreed to poll central government representatives in Siberia, and their verdict was a firm "nay".
The present situation, if we view it in the texture of the Bering Strait
TCL (actually, the updated Siberia-Alaska plan of a hundred years ago) and image it on the future of Siberia, the Russian Far East in the first place - this situation is both like and unlike that of the early 20th century.
Russia has become weaker again, economically and politically. Meanwhile, the United States is coming up with fresh initiative for construction projects. Some Russian experts view the American moves in the positive light, as protection against China, an overpopulated country that needs raw material sources (not against Japan as before).
But there is a substantial difference. Then, during the construction of the 7-thousand-kilometer-long Trans-Siberian railroad (1891 to 1916), the population of Siberia and the Far East kept rising fast; now it is going down. A hundred years ago broad public and entrepreneurial quarters were actively involved in discussing economic development projects for the area and for tapping its natural resources. Today such economic activities are phasing out.
What we should always remember is this: the demographic potential of China's contiguous regions exceeds manifold that of the Russian Far East. While Russia still keeps a status of raw- material producer, China has effected a breakthrough into the world market of high technologies, and is pushing ahead to consolidate and expand its presence there with much success.
Now, how will things shape up in the future? This is a problem with many unknowns. Yet one thing is clear: whether China will go ahead and make territorial claims or not when the infiltration of ethnic Chinese has come to a critical pass, Russia cannot afford to wait and see anyway. It cannot afford to sit and wait for national capital to flow into Siberia and the Far East, for national capital has always stood aloof from the problems of these territories. We can well see this on the example of the Trans-Siberian railroad: when it was put into service, national capital stayed put in St. Petersburg and Moscow, it did not move east.
Under Soviet rule the central government as good as inherited the policy line of its predecessors. Overlong communication lines, high production and transportation costs, limited labor resources and other specific factors-all that was a pat argument in the panoply of those who opposed the policy of comprehensive development of Siberia and the Far East with an accent on social-demographic advancement. Every now and then Moscow would play tough to break the resistance of the die-hards. But even command-style policies did not guarantee consistent and rational economic activities in Siberia and the Far East-such policies worked only under emergency conditions.
Liberalization and other reforms at the close of the 20th century showed up the real impact of forces counteracting the socioeconomic advancement of our eastern territories. And here yet another, fourth scenario of their future development comes up. It materializes the traditional attitude of central authorities to Siberia as Russia's periphery. That is to say, its problem solving should be subordinated only to the economic interests of European Russia. Clearly, a primitive stance like that cannot ensure prosperity, be it in European Russia or in Siberia and the Far East.
And thus we come to a fifth scenario for the future of our eastern
territories - namely, attempts to link their development to the economic and political interests of the United States. In 1992 W. Meade, of the Institute of World Politics, published an article where, as he put it, he outlined a "mad" idea to purchase Siberia from Russia. The author specified the territory: from the Yenisei in the west to the Pacific in the east, and from the southern districts bordering on China, Mongolia and North Korea to the Arctic Ocean in the north. He estimated the cost of the bargain at 1,000 US dollars per acre, including the infrastructure and the population (about 15 mln, 90 percent of whom are Slavs, and the rest 10 percent ethnic groups akin to Alaska's indigenous population). The always empty, bottomless Russian treasury could thus be in for 3 trillion dollars, paid by installments in 20 years.
Should this bargain come off, the United States would nearly double its present territory and add seven new stars, symbolizing Siberian states, to its Star-Spangled Banner. All people living there would become full-fledged US citizens. Besides, the aboriginal ethnic groups closely related to native Americans would get land set aside for reservations, compensation money and relocation allowances.
The author, Mr. Meade, takes it for granted that Russia has never been and, most probably, will never be able to invest into Siberia and the Far East as much as to materialize the potential of the productive forces of these territories into the real energy of socioeconomic development. It all depends on whether Russia will ever agree to sell its eastern territories as it happened in 1867, as Czar Alexander II and his ministers took a pragmatic stand and reasoned it was better to get money for Alaska rather than lose it anyway, gratis. To get an answer to this highly emotional question- Will Russia sell or not? - Mr. Meade undertook a journey across Siberia in 1993. He summed up his manifold, though equally sad, impressions in a large article titled, "Let's Purchase Siberia". He concluded Russia's reply might be positive. The Russian government, Mr. Meade said, could agree to sell its eastern territories if the present crisis kept up.
The author certainly shows a good deal of fancy and imagination. The "mad" project of the United States purchasing Siberia from Russia is obviously far-fetched. Still and all, his analysis is premised on hard realities of the past and present. The heart of the matter is that Russia has always been loath-and unable-to invest into Siberia's socioeconomic development more-or at least as much-than what is pumped out in natural and human resources. So long as there is no fair give-and-take, there will be a plethora of projects and scenarios for Siberia's alienation. The threat is real, and the sands are running out.
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