In the Jewish Autonomous Region, a small administrative district that was originally created to house the Soviet Union’s Jewish population under Stalin, 40% of arable land is now under the administration of Chinese workers. According to Chinese media, 90% of the vegetables sold in the Far East in 2012 were grown by Chinese workers. Estimates put the number of Chinese guest workers in the Far East at half a million.
These demographic changes are quite worrying to the Russian leadership, as evidenced by a statement by Medvedev in August 2012. Two days after two new nuclear submarines were dispatched to the Pacific Fleet, Medvedev warned that it is vital to protect the Far East from “excessive expansion by bordering states” while noting that it is "important not to allow negative manifestations … including the formation of enclaves made up of foreign citizens." While the first quote was clearly directed at China, the second comment could just as easily serve as a warning of the potential consequences of Moscow’s own policies aimed at developing the region.
Viktor Ishayev, the official placed in charge of the Far East by Putin, has begun a program to develop the region by attracting 1.1 million new workers to the region in the next decade, including workers from abroad. Between 240,000 and 280,000 guest workers have already arrived in the Far East from the Caucasus and Central Asia, a large number considering the small and declining native population. As Marlene Laurelle notes in a recent policy brief, “If Russia’s Arctic develops economically, it would mean a rapid increase in Russia’s Muslim and Central Asian population, an identity dilemma that Moscow is currently unable to solve.” Given the ethnic clashes that are now erupting with increasing frequency between ethnic Russians and gastarbeiters from former Soviet states, it is likely that this strategy of attracting migrant labor will not only cause ethnic tensions in the region but contribute to the flight of native Russians out of the Far East, who are already leaving the region for a variety of reasons, such as seeking higher wages and escaping the poor state of the infrastructure, and settling not only in European Russia but also, increasingly, in China itself.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Russian politicians have floated another proposal for the development of the Far East: moving the Russian capital from the European side to the Asian side of the country. Despite the absurdity of the idea of relocating hundreds of thousands of officials to another continent, the suggestion that Russia do just that has been made by Defense Secretary Sergey Shoygu, and most recently the mayor of Vladivostok in an interview. More than anything else, the proposal underscores Russia’s increasing desperation that the region will simply fade from its control without close attention. Development efforts have hitherto had very mixed results: Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute for Globalization’s Problems, a Moscow-based think tank, blasted the efforts of the Ministry for Far Eastern Development in a recent interview, saying the most that the Ministry had accomplished was the construction of a Kosmodrome. The Chinese domination of the Far East, he added, was “continuing at a vigorous pace.”
And so the shiny new additions to the Russian Pacific Fleet stand not only in contrast to the region’s rapidly decaying infrastructure but to the very forces that will shape the Far East’s future: geopolitical power in the 21st century is determined just as much by foreign direct investment and transnational labor migration as by displays of military hardware. All the might of the Pacific Fleet will do little to keep the region from continuing to slowly drift out of Russia's sphere of influence.
Andrew S. Bowen is an editorial assistant for The Interpreter, a Russian language translation and analysis journal where this article originally appeared, and a member of the strategic-consulting firm Wikistrat. Follow him on twitter @Andrew_S_Bowen.
Luke Rodeheffer is a graduate student and freelance commentator on Eurasian geopolitics based in Istanbul. He has previously written for The Interpreter, New Eastern Europe, and George Washington University's International Affairs Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @LukeRodeheffer.