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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saving Russia's Far East

When Alexander Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia this summer, he arrived in Vladivostok and traveled across the Far East and Siberia by train. Since then, the writer has many times spoken about the problems he observed there: a decreasing standard of living, failures to convert production enterprises, the changing ethnic composition of the local population. He has sounded an alarm that has yet to be heeded, even though these problems merit immediate consideration.

The Russian Far East is the most intensely militarized region of our intensely militarized country. The land is literally saturated with weapons: It is dotted with various generations of decaying tanks and artillery pieces. Explosions at the military warehouses around Vladivostok have become regular occurrences. Several dozen nuclear submarines wait idly in the harbor while the government tries to resolve the problems associated with dismantling them. Since new facilities for storing radioactive waste have not been built and the old ones are overflowing, the navy is forced to dump them into the Sea of Japan, despite the protests of the world community.

Because the Far East is so completely militarized and because Siberia has been developed only as a source of minerals and forest products, all food products and consumer goods have always been shipped in from central Russia. However, increased railroad tariffs and price increases have resulted in a fundamental shift in the geography of goods shipments. While supplies from Russia have virtually ceased, the volume of trade with neighboring countries in the region has increased four to five times in the last 18 months.

A series of special agreements between Russia and China now makes it possible for Chinese citizens to enter the region without visas, and this has resulted in "creeping expansionism," which could have drastic consequences in a relatively short time since population density on the Chinese side of the border is more than 10 times as much as on the Russian side.

The flowering of the countries of the Asian-Pacific Rim stands in stark contrast to the decay of Russia's Far East. These "young tigers," using Japanese technology and investment, have already been able to overtake some Western European countries in key economic categories. The reaction of the local population of the Russian Far East to this contrast has been predictable. Many are migrating to European Russia and others are spreading separatist propaganda. It has become fashionable in the region to look back fondly on the independent Far-Eastern Republic of the 1920s.

This raises the real question of how to preserve Russia's territorial integrity. How can we reverse the flow of migration from the region? Since, in our new democratic society, it is impossible to do so through forced migration, the only answer is to take immediate steps radically to improve the quality of life there.

In principle, this should be possible, given the region's rich forests and abundance of productive land. However, exploiting these resources without attracting even more foreign labor to the region will require modern harvesting technology such as that which is currently in use in Canada. This would require tremendous capital investment which Russia is in no position to provide. Japan, however, could.

It would seem natural that Japan, with its massive resources for investment, should be an ideal partner for Russia in the current situation. But this has not been the case so far and the reason for that is simple enough. Nothing will happen until the issue of the Kuril Islands is resolved.

The illegality of the Soviet occupation of the Kurils has been acknowledged already, by the former Soviet government and by the current regime. This is clear both from the 1956 Soviet-Japanese agreement and from President Boris Yeltsin's own five-step program for settling territorial questions.

The initial stages of this plan call for the demilitarization of the islands and for the easing of travel restrictions which keep Japanese citizens from visiting them. These provisions are, with difficulty, now being realized. One infantry division has already been withdrawn and the local residents who were deported in 1945, and their descendants, have been able to visit their family graves. In addition, talks concerning the creation of a free trade zone in the area are underway.

Nonetheless, it will still be a long time before the territorial question is settled. Yeltsin's plan has met stiff opposition from Russian nationalists and from high-level military personnel. In the past, the main argument against returning the islands was concern for the local population. However, offers from the Japanese of generous compensation and dual citizenship have long since won over a majority of the locals.

The American Rand Corporation estimates that Russia stands to receive $26 billion in state investment if it settles this matter. Moreover, I attended a joint Russian-Japanese economic conference in 1992 at which the potential private investment figures were estimated to be five times as high. This level of investment would be enough to bring the Russian Far East the kind of development that has been observed in the other countries of the region.

Russia's steps in this direction have also been hampered by a traditional bias toward Europe and the West. However, Japan is now not just a regional, but a world power with considerable influence in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international organizations. Moreover, Japan's position on the Kuril question is supported by the United States and the other countries of the Group of Seven. In the post-Cold War world, Russia must forget about the old East-West anachronisms and consider its true geopolitical interests.

Viktor Belkin is a professor of economics and a senior researcher at the Institute of National Economic Forecasting. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.