Set Fast Chinese Border

Primorsky Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko's motto "Not an inch of Russian land to China" has caught on in the Khabarovsky region in the Far East and among many Russian patriots. Regional officials, local Cossacks and Russian soldiers are regularly accusing Moscow of betraying national interests in the Far East.

The Russia-Chinese demarcation treaty that was signed back in 1991 by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev transferred more than 80 percent of the islands on the Amur and Ussur rivers to Chinese jurisdiction.

The treaty was undermined from the start, since it was signed amid euphoria over improved Soviet-Chinese relations without considering the opinions of local authorities -- not to mention those of the local population. The Russian diplomatic community had also tacitly intended to use improved ties with China as a counterbalance to Japan. The result was sharp opposition in the Primorsky region to the treaty's implementation and a calm but resolved stand in the Khabarovsky region.

The press has written much about Nazdratenko's scandalous behavior, characterizing him as the only one at fault for the breakdown in the demarcation process. But there are few who know that his counterpart in Khabarovsk, Governor Viktor Ishayev, has also described the treaty as damaging to the interests of Russia and the region.

This July, a scandal broke out at a meeting of the Khabarovsk administration, where representatives from all of the city's political and social movements were gathered, including scientists, historians and Russian border guards. Nearly every speaker there tried to frighten those in attendance with accounts of a pending threat of Chinese aggression and demanded that the controversial transfer of the islands be reconsidered. Only a few reasonable politicians and members of the social movements cited the international standards for dividing waterways by channels -- that is, along the deepest lines of a river by which ships are supposed to navigate.

Moscow has defended its adherence to the treaty by arguing that international treaties must be fulfilled and that a small part of Russia must be sacrificed -- especially given that much of the land in question was once illegally seized by the Soviet Union -- for the sake of preserving normal relations with China.

Local authorities have taken a different stance: These territories are economically and strategically significant, and giving them up would set a dangerous precedent for new claims on Russian territory.

Located at the junction of the Amur and Ussur rivers in the Khabarovsk region, Tarabarov and Bolshoi Ussuriisky islands were the subject of what were perhaps the most heated debates at the meeting. The Chinese side considers these large islands to be its own. The Russian side currently has communication equipment on these islands and Khabarovsk residents have dachas there.

Given the firm stance taken by local patriots, the Chinese have decided to fight nature. For several years now, the river channels that are now considered the official Russian-Chinese border have not been used for shipping. The Chinese have been building cement dams and slowly diverting the river's flow. In winter, when temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius, they break holes in the frozen river and drop rocks and other hard substances into the water.

As a result, the channels have become so shallow that ferries and military frigates cannot pass, the only exception being Chinese fishing junks. The passageways have shifted toward the Russian shoreline. Today, all Chinese vessels sail through Russian territorial waters, passing the Tarabarov and Bolshoi Ussuriisky islands on the Russian side. Local authorities are charging the Chinese for passage through their territory. For their part, the Chinese are refusing to pay and demanding that the water boundaries be reappraised since, according to international standards, they believe the shifted channel is a new line of territorial division.

Local inhabitants have testified that Tarabarov and Bolshoi Ussuriisky are not the only islands along the Amur and Ussur rivers where the Chinese are diverting waterways in order to take over disputed territory.

Many Moscow politicians are unaware of these border realities. They are prepared to concede several islands in order to strengthen Russian-Chinese relations. In the future, Moscow wants China to be its new strategic partner as a counterweight to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Compared to this, what are two or three islands?

After traveling nearly 2,000 kilometers along the Amur and Ussur rivers, I was convinced that 90 percent of the islands there are lifeless and unused areas of land. Local authorities do not have extensive access to the rivers because of a rigid electric fence along the Russian-Chinese border. Only in a few populated areas do village residents have the opportunity to swim and fish in the rivers. Control over the Russian shoreline is completely in the hands of the border guards.

Efforts should be made to establish the borders along the river. Time is on China's side, and the Chinese are moving north in huge numbers. Chinese cities are now popping up all along the shores of the Amur and Ussur. Only intelligent and immediate work on settling the border dispute will save Russia from the unpredictable actions of its great neighbor. China's growing economy is in need of the raw materials and energy resources of the Russian Far East. Without clearly defined borders, the small Russian population sitting on these resources could turn out to be vulnerable to losing control of them.

Mumin Shakirov is a staff writer for Novaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.