Russia’s Pivot to the East: Between Wishes and Reality

Russian society, including the expert community, remains undecided about the country’s pivot to the East and its reorientation from the Euro-Atlantic area to eastern Eurasia, something that was announced more than 10 years ago. For many analysts, this is a forced move resulting from Russia being “squeezed” out of Europe. For others, it’s an empty declaration, yet another search for a national concept. Still others see it as a new threat (“yellow danger”) to Russia’s sovereignty. Overall, unfortunately, this pivot hasn’t become a significant phenomenon in the country. Any disputes or decisions concern a rather narrow slice of people in Russia and neighboring countries. 

On the face of it, the pivot should have the greatest importance for the Russian Far East as developing the Far East was declared a long-term state priority. It is here that new-for-the-country economic structures were created, such as priority development areas, priority socioeconomic development areas and the free port of Vladivostok, to name a few. There has been more investment in the infrastructure on this territory in recent years than in any other region of the country. The pivot to the East includes expanding the railway and road network in the region, building new port facilities, a major renovation effort in Vladivostok and building an eastbound pipeline system.

Ironically, Russia’s pivot to the East has almost disappeared from the region’s current agenda. Media coverage is almost non-existent, in any case, much less is written about this than about fires, floods, local and regional elections, or population outflow. Even when they feel like writing something positive, they write about building new factories in the Amur Region, or new airports in Kamchatka and Khabarovsk, but never about the pivot to the East. Let’s have a look at the underlying reasons, of which there is more than one. 

The ideology of the pivot to the East itself was not spelled out or expressed either by top public officials or the major media outlets. This has given rise to uncertainty with regard to expectations and concerns in the region. The expectations were based on the existing Porto Franco system and on the Far East lifestyle connected with it receiving state support. Concerns, on the other hand, are based on the desire “to put things in order,” i.e., to destroy an existing way of life.

Russia’s Turn to the East: Leaving the Comfort Zone and a Change of Civilizational Choice
Leonid Bliakher
As part of the Eastern Perspective project, Leonid Bliakher, Head of the Department of Philosophy at the Pacific National University in Khabarovsk, told about the premises and limitations of Russia’s “turn to the East.”

It looked like the “governor economies” of the 1990s-early 2000s would be replaced by massive public investment. But in fact, only hundreds of jobs have been created in place of the thousands of jobs that were cut. And many jobs (greater economic viability) were filled by newcomers or temporary workers who were squeezing out the locals not only from the lower floors of the economy, but also in areas such as management, and project development. All this has created a negative feeling in the region. 

Investment itself is most often focused on the long-term effect. Indeed, over time, new or rebuilt roads, and expanded ports and airports will become a pass to the future for the Russian Far East. But first, the people were not told this, and second, people are living today, not tomorrow. Today, employment in the Far Eastern is by no means increasing, and new jobs often do not pay enough to buy a dignified life. 

There was a geographical reason as well. It turned out that officials from the newly created ministry were the main "creators" of the new Russian Far East as an element of Russia’s pivot to the East. But the reality of an official is an administrative reality, the reality of a document. The document presents an integral economic system which is the Far Eastern Federal District. The city of Vladivostok is its showcase representative during the WEF or a top officials’ visit. But the real Russian Far East is far from a single territory; it’s a combination of loosely interconnected territorial units. What makes some sense for some territories is meaningless for other territories. However, the decisions apply to all of the Far Eastern Federal District. Thus, they are focused on a missing object or a missing community. This doesn’t encourage enthusiasm with the real community, either. 

Today, negative emotions are focused mainly on the local and regional authorities. They manifest themselves in various forms and to a varying degree in different regions of the Russian Far East. But they are there. Not addressing this dynamic could be a source of serious danger. Moreover, it is not so much about police work, but trivial outreach. However, despite the obvious need for this approach, the tools for implementing it have not been made available. 

There’s also a demographic component behind the negative sentiment, which is gradually becoming the main mood in the region. The pivot to the East program was and is being developed with a focus on successful models of the past. At the same time, an obvious, in our opinion, consideration is being neglected, namely, that all successful projects for developing remote territories were carried out by Russia during periods of demographic and population growth. From "crowded" European Russia, the population went (walked, went by boat) to unoccupied lands. Today, and in the coming years, Russia will exist in a demographic trough. The question here is not about measures to support the birth rate, but the fact that the "smaller" generation (a distant repercussion of the Great Patriotic War, which overlaps the decline of the early 1990s) is starting families now. And, objectively, the "larger" generation, aged 50+, will be transitioning into the category of dependents. 

Hopes for labor from Central Asia may also prove to be overestimated. The "demographic transition" is drawing to an end there as well, and the demographic pressure is decreasing. As a result, ideas of giant road construction projects or expanding the defense industry do not work for the objective reason that there is a lack of labor resources, and not just in the Far East, but everywhere in the country and beyond. The failure of another large project (like building a saw mill in the town of Amursk) not only fails to create new jobs, but it cuts existing ones. This does not encourage enthusiasm among Russian Far East residents. However, unlike the capital, negative sentiment here is not expressed by destructive rallies, but rather more peacefully by migration. 

Is it possible to turn the situation around? Yes, without a doubt. It’s important to understand what we can change and what we can’t. Changing demographic trends is almost an unrealistic proposal. At best, today’s efforts will alleviate the next wave of demographic decline and slightly increase the next "small generation." However, it is possible to build an economy with this in mind, not relying on mass industrial production, but other activities that don’t require a big labor force, ranging from extracting natural raw materials to creating high-tech products and developing the experience economy, etc. 

Most importantly, it is absolutely necessary to have a clear understanding of what the pivot to the East is, why Russia needs it, and the role of the Far East and its residents in it. Far Eastern residents should then be made aware of this understanding. And then ... maybe something will come of it.

Asia – Eurasia
Turn to the East and the New World Geopolitics
Timofei Bordachev
These days Vladivostok hosts the 5th Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), the largest representative event at the highest political level in Russia. This year, the forum will be attended by the heads of state and government of India, Malaysia, Mongolia and Japan as participants in a panel discussion, along with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin.
Valdai Papers
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