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Grigory Pasko: The Far Fringes

[Translator’s note: In general, when Russians speak of the “Far East” or use the word “Maritime”, they’re not talking about Japan or Nova Scotia, but about the RUSSIAN Far East, which is historically and culturally somewhat distinct from Siberia. It’s the whole area along the Pacific Coast, including such places as Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Sakhalin, etc.] Regional update The Far Fringes Grigory Pasko, journalist The Far East must be integrated into Russia, but in its present lamentable state the region represents a “threat to national security”, declared president of Russia Vladimir Putin at a session of the Security Council this past Wednesday. It just so happened that I was in the Far East in the days preceding the session: in the cities of Ussuriysk, Spassk-Dalny, and Vladivostok. vladivostok.jpg What I saw and heard forced me to recall the words of Vladimir Lenin about how the city of Vladivostok may be far away, but it’s still “ours”. That is, the Far East is supposedly “ours”, but many factors suggest that it is breaking further and further away from the central and European parts of Russia. Here are but a few examples of today’s reality on the far fringes. In the central hotel of the city of Ussuriysk, you can watch 5 Russian channels on the TV – and 8 Chinese ones. Why this is so is easy to understand: there are very many Chinese in Ussuriysk, who bring goods here and sell them at the famous market. The entire Maritime region gets its goods at this market. The menu in the restaurant and many signs in the hotel are written in Chinese. The working girls are awaiting Chinese customers. The Chinese drive around in expensive foreign cars. There are also many Koreans in the city. They’ve even built a new Evangelical church – big, beautiful, with solid and expensive furniture. The congregation includes not only Koreans, but Russians as well. I ask a Russian girl named Lena why she became an Evangelical. “It just happened that way,” she says quietly. “But actually, formerly I professed Orthodoxy…” In one of the finer hotels of Vladivostok – the “Versailles” – you can watch an Israeli channel on TV, and a channel in… the Ukrainian language. I asked the manager what had prompted such a choice. He shrugged his shoulders: “I dunno”. I think I do know why nearly all the Maritimers choose Japanese automobiles: the excellent quality of these cars and the good price. Many say: “If a Lada were of the same quality and the same price, we would take the Lada”. At the same time, they point out that none of them believes in the quality of Russian cars in the next few decades. I spoke with the director of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East, Professor and Doctor of Historical Sciences Viktor Larin. He is convinced that Russia lacks an intelligible and clear foreign policy in this region. Hence the non-stop hysterical shrieking about “Chinese expansion”, and the very real problems with the development of the region and its integration into the economic system of the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. To this ought to be added that the domestic policy of the state with respect to the Far East remains a mystery to many as well. People don’t have the desire to remain in the region. Many are leaving for the western part of the country. Sergey Petrovich, the driver of a private taxi, says: “Look at this road that we’re driving on (Federal Highway M-60 from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk). This is a nightmare, not a road.. And nobody cares”. The road really is a nightmare: potholes, narrow lanes, bad asphalt pavement, a minimum of road signs… My traveling companions and I decided to have breakfast in Spassk-Dalny. The manager of one of the two hotels looked at us suspiciously, then chewed us out and said: “What’s the matter, you don’t got nothing to do or you just looking for someone to talk to? What do you mean ‘breakfast’? – it’s Saturday”. We found out later that you could only get supper in the evening, in only one of the restaurants. With such “trifles”, it’s clear that foreign investments aren’t going to be flowing into the region. At the same time, in Grodekovo, at the railroad station, we saw trainloads of timber being taken to China. And in Pogranichny, crowds of our “shuttlers” bringing consumer goods from the neighbouring country. Everybody’s doing their business at different levels and in different ways. Some by thievery with the collusion of forestry officials. Others through small-scale wholesale trade. Only one thing’s for sure – the government is taking minimal part in this. And if it does start to concern itself with something, then it only makes things worse for people, as has already often been the case with respect to cars with right-side steering wheels. The fact is that specialists estimate that there are around 10 million people in Russia engaged in the right-side steering business. Among these, just owners of such cars alone number in excess of 2 million people. If the government were to prohibit the operation of such cars, it would find that it has acquired millions of active and conscious opponents. They say that a decision has been adopted on the creation in the region of a zone for the gaming business. The session of the Security Council at which it was decided to build a metallurgical plant and gas and oil refining and petrochemical enterprises in the Far East testifies to the fact that the country’s leadership does, after all, understand: without a sensible policy, it may cut off the Far East from the rest of Russia for a long time.