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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Far East Needs Evils of West




In the Russian Far East, we are not oppressed by Big Macs and super-sized orders of french fries because there are no McDonald's franchises this side of Moscow, 10,000 kilometers away.


If anyone wanted to dress up in a ski mask and smash the windows at a Starbucks coffeehouse or a Nordstrom's store, he would embark on a disappointing rampage, because the companies do not exist here. Perhaps he could be convinced to settle for wrecking the new espresso machine at a downtown market selling cake, pickled fish, instant coffee, and coils of hog's gut stuffed with gristle and fat.


This metropolis of 700,000 people - located in the finger of Russia bordered by China, North Korea and the Sea of Japan - is not famous for trade. Ships rust and sink in the harbor. Unpaid workers march in the thousands every year. And most vessels that bring foreign goods to port leave the harbor empty: Russian industry has all but collapsed and offers little to sell abroad.


So it is strange, as an American abroad, to read of the protests that have erupted around the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, a major trading center in the wealthiest nation in history. Friends in the Puget Sound area fire off e-mails describing mobs in the streets and the whiff of tear gas in the air. The papers report curfews and pellet-firing policemen.


Excitement is everywhere, the 1960s-style outrage is palpable, and it is clear that the millennium will usher in a new people power that will change the world by abolishing - well, what? Hamburgers? Child labor? Third World debt? Smokestacks? China?


Or is it just that the protesters want the WTO to eliminate badness in any form, at home and abroad, lest the engine of revolutions, the awakened masses, take to the streets dressed as turtles and stilt-walkers?


Perhaps after three years in Russia, I have lost touch. But it is hard not to wonder what is going on.


According to government statistics, the Primorye region, where Vladivostok is located, reported total imports and exports of $594 million in the first half of 1999, a 35 percent decline from the same period the previous year. The 1998 annual figure, in turn, fell 28 percent from 1997. In an election year in Russia, these numbers are probably pushed to optimistic levels. Despite deepwater ports and access to the forests and minerals of Siberia and the Far East, the region is on its knees. There is no Boeing, no Microsoft, no Weyerhaeuser - none of the linchpins of the Washington state economy.


Twenty percent of Primorye workers are owed back wages. Some companies are a year overdue in paying their employees. Forty percent of the population lives below the poverty level of $36 a month. Even those of us who are paid have seen the dollar value of our wages drop by three-quarters since the ruble crisis of August 1998. As the editor of an English-language weekly published by a local daily, my salary has fallen from $600 to $150 per month.


To survive, unpaid workers steal equipment from factories and sell it to scrap-metal dealers. They grow cabbages in their gardens and poach salmon from the streams. They borrow from their pensioner parents.


The problem is that Vladivostok closed itself to world markets for decades, until 1992. While neighboring far eastern economies such as Japan, South Korea and China boomed, Vladivostok remained a city foreigners could not even visit. And socialist stagnation was followed not by the rule of law necessary to take part in the global economy, but by economic gangsterism.


Soviet protectionism did not mean a cleaner environment: The navy made a practice of dumping liquid radioactive waste in the sea, and power stations still foul the air with coal smoke.


Of course the Soviet Union was a historical freak, but you cannot help looking from afar at North America's wealth and wondering what all the fuss is about.


True, there are problems with globalism. Even in this economic backwater, some Korean sewing companies have imported low-wage Chinese seamstresses, nudging out some Russian workers. But when offered a choice between American-style capitalism or Russia's crippled economy, nobody here would chose the latter.


Every so often a Russian will say that Americans don't have any serious problems, so they have to invent them. I always tell them that is untrue. But when the masses take to the streets wearing ski masks or carrying oversized puppets, it's hard not to think: Maybe they're just bored.