The Problem: China and Caucasus

President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed that Europe reform its system of collective security. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe trashed the idea, voting 55-1 against it. Why? Because an odd suggestion was hidden behind the phrase "reform the system of collective security" -- namely that NATO be prohibited from expanding its membership, European countries lose their right to deploy U.S. missiles on their territory, but Russia be allowed to do whatever it wants. After the Georgia war, the proposal sounded especially unconvincing.

Russia has two major problems: China and the Caucasus.

The problem with China is that, in the Russian Far East, people are living in the 21st century on the Chinese side of the Amur River, while on the Russian side they are still stuck in the 19th century. On the Chinese side is the prosperous boom town of Heihe. On this side is the dilapidated and run-down city of Blagoveschensk. Russia ships train cars filled with raw timber and oil south into China, while on the opposite tracks, trains bring in manufactured goods and laborers from China.

In contrast to the United States, China has territorial claims on Russia. And in contrast to our officials, the Chinese think in terms of millenniums, not dollars. But we do not discuss our "China problem" at all because Russia's government is in about the same condition as those buildings in Blagoveschensk -- and that makes it too frightening to even bring up the subject. It is easier to discuss problems that don't really exist, such as the issue of collective security in Europe.

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Russia's second big problem is the Caucasus. In reality, the Caucasus was never really integrated into Russia -- not in tsarist times, not during Soviet times, not now -- and that's great. Any empire, if it wants to be considered a true empire, needs to have a variety of cultures with varying degrees of development and a marked difference between the regions and the central metropolis -- which remains a metropolis because it gives more to the provinces than it takes from them.

In Russia, that relationship has been seriously compromised. Moscow police treat people from the Caucasus as second-rate citizens. Moscow takes everything from the people of the Caucasus -- their honor, their dignity, and their right to feel as though they are citizens of a great empire. Moscow feels justified in using a tank to level an apartment building in Makhachkala. But imagine what would happen if troops used a tank to demolish an apartment building in Moscow just because a suspected criminal was living in one of the apartments? And Moscow has no problem with "cleansing" an entire Ingush village, thus labeling -- and making -- every inhabitant an accomplice to suspected insurgents. The only thing the Kremlin gives the regions in return is money, and this is done in the belief that any fire can be extinguished by pouring enough dollars on it and that the insurgents will remain marginalized as long as the powerful leaders in the Caucasus continue shooting one another in their squabble for federal funds. This strategy has worked out fine as the money kept flowing. But now Russia is running out of cash, and what will happen with the Caucasus as a result?

Of course, it would be wrong to say that Russia completely ignores the Caucasus problem. It is discussed. For example, two months ago Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Shamanov said the situation in the Caucasus was serious and would remain so because of the then-approaching presidential elections in the United States. Let's just say that his comment fell a little short of being a complete analysis of the situation.

Russia's foreign policy is very simple. Moscow does not address the problems that actually exist. It takes on the really nettlesome problems that don't exist. It won't discuss what's happening in the Caucasus, but it is more than willing to defend the interests of 30,000 Russian citizens in South Ossetia. Fine. But what will we do when the Chinese government decides that it wants to defend the interests of the several million Chinese citizens living in the sparsely populated Russian Far East?

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.