Trouble brews in Russia's Far East
SPRING is coming to Russia, but the mood remains wintry. From Vladivostok to the borders of Ukraine - now a nation of dissident Europhiles only 500km from Moscow - debates about the future swirl.
At the heart of some of the angst have been two eternal Russian questions:
- Are we Europeans or Asians?
- In which continent will we find our future?
Latest to confront the issue is no less a person than Mr Dimitri Medvedev, President Vladimir Putin's chief of staff. In an interview with Expert, a Moscow magazine, he warned that Russia's very existence depended on its Far East.
'If we do not develop our eastern regions,' said Mr Medvedev, 'Russia will not survive as a single whole. This is a simple truth.'
He added: 'There is also a very obvious and complex demographic problem.'
Indeed there is. Fewer than seven million people live in the Russian Far East. Right next door are three cramped north China provinces teeming with 130 million or more Chinese.
'We absolutely must do something to boost the population in these regions,' said Mr Medvedev. 'Otherwise, the Far East will be a cold, empty and neglected place, or someone else will develop it instead.'
But does Russia, as it is currently organised, deserve its huge Asian landmass?
Doubtful, says Professor Alexander Lukin, director of Moscow's Centre for East Asian Studies. 'We will (first) have to reform the entire Russian educational system to include Asian languages, history and culture,' he says.
Elsewhere in Russia the mood seems no less sombre.
In a recent poll of 40 regions scattered nationwide, the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Centre found that 54 per cent of Russians took a negative view of Moscow's activities last year.
Only 6 per cent felt that the government was successful in its undertakings. About 33 per cent said that over the past 15 years, not a single Russian prime minister had done his job well.
The prevailing mood has encouraged some Western commentators to make grim forecasts about Russia. Perhaps the most alarming predictions have come from Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor), the private American intelligence service based in Austin, Texas.
Stratfor warns that Russia is ripe for the kind of uprisings seen lately in neighbouring Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
'Regional forces are positioning themselves to grab power in the Russian Federation's constituent republics with significant non-ethnic Russian populations,' says Stratfor. 'If they succeed, it could mark the beginning of the end of the Russian Federation as a state and country.'
As these analysts see it, Bashkortostan, a minerals-rich autonomous republic in the southern Urals, is the likeliest candidate for upheaval.
The sizeable - 22 per cent - largely Muslim Bashkir minority is campaigning to get rid of President Murtaza Rakhimov. He is described as a Bashkir nationalist, but one who is too moderate and too close to Russia's President Putin.
Last month a 300-strong Bashkir delegation submitted to the Kremlin a petition with 150,000 signatures demanding Mr Rakhimov's dismissal. Their deadline is May 1. The opposition includes extremist Wahhabi Muslims, some of them veterans of the Chechnya insurgency.
Losing Bashkortostan would be a much more severe blow than a worsening of Moscow's tenuous hold on Chechnya. Notes Stratfor: 'The only strategic full-size highway from Russia's east to west goes through Bashkortostan, as do several major energy pipelines from western Siberia to Western Europe.'
Other troubled centres include Tatarstan, also on the east-west transportation and oil-supply jugular. Similar agitation is also reported in Siberia - in Sakha-Yakutia, Russia's gold and diamond region, and Tuva.
The economic implications are not reassuring.
After years of steady growth boosted by rising prices, the oil industry, Russia's lifeblood, is anticipating a sharp slowdown in output growth - to less than 6 per cent this year compared to 9 per cent last year and a record 11 per cent in 2003.
The Kremlin's campaign against oil giant Yukos and the group's subsequent dismantling are among the factors affecting the industry.
Yukos' former boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky awaits a judge's decision next Wednesday on tax evasion and other charges. Whatever the verdict, his deft management is unlikely to be reinstated. Some analysts forecast industry-wide expansion of as low as 2 or 3 per cent in the years ahead.
The International Monetary Fund joined the critical chorus last week. 'The fallout from the Yukos affair...led to oil supply disruption and reignited concerns about the protection of property rights and increased state intervention,' said the fund's semi-annual World Economic Outlook.
If Russia's very survival depends upon its successful development of the east, how will it be accomplished? Though Mr Putin's current policies risked alienating Western democracies, wrote Moscow Times columnist Richard Krickus last week, 'they are the only ones capable of helping Russia exploit the vast riches of Siberia'. Mr Putin's failure to realise this 'may result in China's de facto control of that region by mid-point in this century'.
Other voices point to an alternative route - peaceful co-development with China rather than an alliance with the West.
'Russia needs to understand that economic and political partners in the East are of the same importance as those in the West,' says Prof Lukin. '(However,) this revolution will be impossible without a sweeping programme to study the languages, history and culture of Asian countries at all levels, starting with primary and secondary schools.'
His crisp summary of a looming crisis: 'Russians have forged a myth of themselves as a European country and have fallen victim to their own myth.'