Russia on the Pacific: The Rising Role of the Russian Far East Among Pacific Rim Nations

By
Larissa Eltsefon

"Vladivostok is again poised to become the power of the East. That is what Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev would like," stated Rock Brynner, Adjunct Professor, Marist College. Hailed by Vladivostok residents as a descendant of one of the city's founders, and son of the renowned actor Yul Brynner, Rock spoke at a 14 December 2009 Kennan Institute lecture on both the history and future of the city and its role in making Russia a Pacific power.

The city of Vladivostok is located in the Russian Far East, 60 miles from the North Korean border and almost 5,772 miles from Moscow. In July 1860, 43 Russian sailors arrived in an inlet in the Far East of Russia and created a naval port. The reigning czar at the time hoped this place would make Russia the power of the East, which is the Russian translation of "Vladivostok." Brynner's great grandfather was one of the founders of the city in the 1870s, along with a half-dozen bankers and entrepreneurs who aimed to create what Brynner called a "thoroughly European city in the middle of Asia." This city was never a colony of Russia but rather a city on native soil, and therefore from the beginning the Russian government felt an obligation and responsibility to defend it.

After World War II, Vladivostok became the center of the Soviet nuclear base on the Pacific. The city was closed off to Russian visitors, and even its own residents were not allowed to leave without special permits. It was re-opened only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when its population was approximately one million. That number has since decreased to 600,000, and continues to decrease at an alarming rate. Brynner noted that population decline is endemic to Russia as a whole, especially because the life expectancy for a Russian male is 59 years old, almost 25 years lower than his Japanese counterpart.

"It was a major shock to Vladivostok" one year ago when Putin, with the full authority of the Duma, added an enormous new tax on every foreign car imported from nearby Japan and South Korea. The purpose was to increase sales of Russian-made automobiles to boost the Russian auto industry. "The auto tax caused fantastic anger in Primorye," said Brynner, explaining that although the tax was national, it affected those in the Far East the most; the climate and hilly landscape of Vladivostok make the 4-wheel drive of imported cars a necessity. Indeed, a large part of the citizenry is employed in the importation, sale, and maintenance of imported vehicles, new and second-hand.

Brynner further explained that the tax was taken as a very personal attack on the region. It was intensified when Moscow flew in riot police who violently restrained protesters. "People there were devastated by brutality that was totally unfamiliar to them," said Brynner. In his opinion, the federal government's increased role in the Far East is unfortunate for both the Far East and Russia as a whole. The region is proudly Russian, but they still want respect from the federal government. "In some ways, Vladivostok is as culturally removed from Moscow and St. Petersburg as LA is from New York and D.C. It has kept a certain distance from the intensity of politics in the west of Russia," said Brynner.

However, the politics of Moscow seem unavoidable, even in a region with a seven hour time difference from the capital. "There is an absolutely critical and decisive moment coming over the next 3-5 years in the Russian Far East," said Brynner. Due to the efforts of then President Putin, Vladivostok has been chosen as the host city for the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC). Brynner described this as a significant attempt by Russia to assert its role as a Pacific nation. Hosting the conference in Vladivostok was a very important move for Putin personally; he consequently allocated five billion dollars to be given to the city in preparation.

As of today, Vladivostok cannot support hosting the conference in its city center. There is neither enough space nor the appropriate accommodations to handle the services and people that the five-day conference will entail. However, one mile south of the city is Russkiy Island, a piece of land with no population or infrastructure; an occasional ferry provides transportation to the island, which, according to Brynner, is home only to a hardy handful of residents.

Nevertheless, it is Russkiy Island where Russia intends to hold the APEC summit. The first and most important issue is building a two-mile bridge from the heart of Vladivostok to Russkiy Island, what Brynner called truly "a bridge to nowhere." A similar project was suggested seven years earlier but was laughed out of the regional parliament. Now, the bridge is essential to bringing construction equipment for the convention center to Russkiy Island. Consequently, Vladivostok must wait until early 2011, the projected date of completion for the bridge, before they can start building on the island itself.

What to do with the convention center afterwards? Some in Vladivostok propose creating a new university among the facilities. However, the city already boasts six universities for a population of only 600,000 people. Moreover, since no one lives on the island, Brynner wondered aloud whether some 2,000-4,000 people would be driving across the bridge every day to attend class and then return to their homes on the mainland. For now, the issue is not as pressing as whether the bridge, and the convention center itself, will be built in time. Ultimately, concluded Brynner, "the key to a solution is relating Vladivostok to Pacific Rim countries economically and culturally so that it becomes less of a burden on the federal government and has a better chance of sustaining itself."

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

 

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