Interest in the Far East and Siberia has grown markedly in Russia over the past two years. The transfer of the capital would not only intensify the internal economic life of the region but would also promote the foreign economic ties of Siberia and the Far East, thereby integrating Russia into the international economy of the Asia-Pacific region, where its presence currently is rather weak.
, Professor, Department of International Affairs, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University - Higher School of Economics; Head, Department of Policy and Functioning of the European Union and the European Council, European Studies Institute at Moscow State University of International Relations of the MFA of Russia (MGIMO University).
Interest in the Far East and Siberia has grown markedly in Russia over the past two years. New projects and concepts that could step up the development of these regions are emerging within the context of Russia’s chairmanship of APEC. Meanwhile, the trend towards stagnation and decline of the economy still prevails, despite such major projects as Gazprom’s Eastern Gas Program or the program to establish territorial and production complexes in South Yakutia.
A comparison of the results of the census in the Soviet Union in 1989 and the Russia census of 2010 shows a clear-cut dividing line between the Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk regions. In the cities to the west of this line the population is growing, which indicates that they have decent living standards and good economic opportunities. The population is decreasing in all regional and territorial centers to the east of this line, starting from Irkutsk and further north-eastward. This is a sign of disadvantageous conditions in these areas. The only exceptions are the centers of national autonomous republics owing to their ethnic regional consolidation.
All regions to the east of Krasnoyarsk are in decline and urgent measures must be taken to ensure their large-scale development. Sergei Karaganov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, has suggested transferring a number of the functions of the capital (not all of them) to Siberia or the Far East, as one such measure.
We could have a concept of three capitals. Russia already has two – Moscow and St. Petersburg (a judicial and a cultural capital). By the same logic a third could be created in Siberia or the Far East, where some government functions could be transferred. This is already being done de facto – the main office of the Ministry for the Development of Russia’s Far East will be based in Khabarovsk. We can already discuss the idea of a new capital in practical terms. A third capital would give a new lease of life to the regional economy, accelerate decision-making and bring federal officials closer to the people.
The new capital would be able to do more than be in charge of regional development. It could accept some economic departments and agencies responsible for the energy industry and transport. This issue cannot be resolved overnight but its economic and social expediency is beyond doubt.
The transfer of the capital would not only intensify the internal economic life of the region but would also promote the foreign economic ties of Siberia and the Far East, thereby integrating Russia into the international economy of the Asia-Pacific region, where its presence currently is rather weak.
Transferring the capital with a view to developing a country’s backward territories is not a new idea. There are several striking historical examples one could cite. Take Brazil, for example. Its capital was originally located on the coast, in Rio de Janeiro. In the 1950s then President Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira moved the capital to the country’s geographical center, a region of rainforests. The construction of a new city, Brasilia, intensified the development of the country’s central regions. Kazakhstan is another example. In the 1990s its capital was moved from Alma Ata to Astana, a move which promoted the development of the country’s backward steppe regions. A number of African countries – Tanzania, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire also moved their capitals to backward areas, thereby contributing to their development. The transfer of the capital in Germany helped it step up the country’s political and economic activity.
All of the above examples highlight the benefits of moving the capital, though in these cases the functions of the capital were transferred completely to the new cities. In Russia we are talking about the transfer of only some functions, which would not be quite so radical or destabilizing for the government machine.
2. Sergey Markov , member of the Public Chamber, vice-rector of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics on PR with Government Bodies and Public Organizations
Moving the capital is not an urgent issue today. Such changes stem from the strategy of national development. To begin with, this country does not seem to have any development strategy. The only strategy it has is aimed at recovering from the disaster of the 1990s, which destroyed social, political and economic government institutions.
Just to repeat, a capital only gets moved when a specific strategy requires it. For instance, West Berlin was located in a conflict zone with the Soviet Union, which is why West Germany decided to move its capital to Bonn. Brazil is another example. It adopted a concept of developing its vast territory beyond Rio de Janeiro and so moved its capital to this (yet to be developed) part of the country. Peter the Great wanted to integrate with Europe as much as possible and so transferred Russia’s capital to the Baltic Sea area, where communications with Europe were closer and cheaper. There is currently no strategy which envisages Russia becoming a Pacific power, joining a new Pacific community of nations or switching its status from a European to an Asian power.
Second, the rise of Siberia is impossible due to a lack of the necessary human resources. Things would be different if Russia had a huge population and an active development strategy for Siberia, but this is not the case. On the contrary, Russia is suffering from depopulation. Moreover, moving the capital would require major infrastructure projects, but for the time being Russia’s ideology rejects any investment into infrastructure, preferring instead to make best use of what is already available. This is due to the excessive involvement of private interests in business, but building roads on private money is big-time fraud.
Third, Russia’s priority is its relationship with the European Union, as well as with its kindred souls Ukraine and Belarus. That is one reason why it must retain its capital in the western part of the country. To sum up, there is currently no strategic project that would motivate Russia to transfer its capital elsewhere.
Furthermore, Moscow is a capital with an underdeveloped infrastructure. It suffers from a shortage of roads, housing, schools and kindergartens. Vast areas around Moscow are in very poor condition. There are many abandoned villages in the central part of the country. Under these circumstances, the construction of a new capital in Siberia would be irrational as it would entail even greater degradation for the central, historical part of Russia.