Medvedev Says Moscow at Risk of Losing Russian Far East
by Paul Goble

On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
The Russian / Georgian Conflict and Its Impact on Azerbaijan

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Eagles Mere, PA, September 29 ­ President Dmitry Medvedev says that if the Russian government does not take immediate steps, Moscow could lose the Russian Far East, a declaration that one Russian news agency called "unprecedented" and, at the very least, suggests Russia faces far more serious problems there than the Kremlin has acknowledged up to now.

Speaking at a conference on social-economic development in Kamchatka kray, Medvedev said that "if we do not step up the level of activity of our work [in the Russian Far East], then in the final analysis, we can lose everything," with that region becoming a source of raw materials for Asian countries.

The consequences of further inaction, the Russian president said, could come not only quite quickly but "end in an extremely dramatic way" much as the Soviet Union did 17 years ago. And consequently, he called upon the Russian government to "take administrative decisions" and not to get tied up with "other problems."

During the course of his visit to the region last week, Medvedev himself spoke out against any further movement of the population in the north southward ­ he said the country needs these people where they are ­ and he criticized federal officials for failing to meet the timetables set up for the development of the Far East and the Transbaikal.

In reporting on this "unprecedented" declaration of the Russian leader, also reported the views of other Russian officials and experts. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov told the news outlet that Moscow should "repeat the triumph" of Sergei Witte, the tsarist official who oversaw the transfer of people from European Russia and Ukraine to the Russian Far East.

Sergei Shoigu, the emergency situations minister, agreed that tsarist methods would be useful, including the offering of interest free loans to those willing to move there and freeing all men who do so from the draft. But Vice Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov sounded an upbeat note: he suggested "that time was needed and that all would be normal."

Most experts with whom spoke disagreed. Maksim Perov, a former department head at the ministry of regional affairs who now works at a Moscow foundation, said that the Far East already is "completely cut off from the rest of Russia' and must "orient itself" to Asian countries rather than to European Russia.

At present, he said, imports from Asian countries form 90 percent of the goods on the consumer market in the Russian Far East, and "high transportation costs and expensive electricity, in fact, are prohibitive for the development of local and especially mid-sized businesses there."

Rostislav Turovsky, the general director of the Agency for Regional Research, said that "the expansion of foreign business [in the Far East] may lead to a situation in which this region "de jure" will remain Russian but "de facto" will be converted into a raw material supplier for China and Japan.

Vyacheslav Glazychev, who chairs the Social Chamber's commission on regional development, said that one immediate step that needs to be taken is to crack down on official corruption in the region. Officials there are seeking so much in bribes from business that Russian businesses in the region are moving to China.

But Aleksandr Kynyev, an expert at the Foundation for the Development of Information Policy, said that the first thing Moscow must do is to deal with the transportation and communication links between European Russia and the Russian Far East, increasing the size and density of the system and reducing prices.

"The colossal investments combined with the colossal risks" involved in doing that, Konstantin Simonov of the Foundation for National Energy Security said, are beyond the capacity of private business. "For this would be needed a [state-led] mobilization comparable to the Gulag"-style mobilization conducted by Stalin.

Simonov added that in his view, the current Russian government was "too rickety, weakened and sybaritic" to take such steps and its leaders are too much "afraid" of being accused of statist measures, thing she said were "very strange for the largest country in the world."

However that might be, Simonov's comments may provide another reason for Medvedev's dramatic statement: The Russian president may - as many of his predecessors have - be looking at the size of the challenges that the Russian Far East presents not so much in their own terms but as the perfect pretext for expanding the power of the state itself more generally.

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