By Paul Goble
The willingness of Russian officials to rent land in the Transbaikal region to China (see EDM, June 24) gives Beijing control over a choke point that it could use to block Moscow’s access to the Russian Far East. And as Russian commentator Oleg Lusenko further argues, given the decay and depopulation of the region, this situation can lead to Beijing taking control over a territory equal in size to that of China itself. Lusenko has examined both the rental deal and the ways in which China can exploit it—including by potentially provocative ways, such as the setting of forest fires—to prevent the Russian government from maintaining control there (Forum-msk.org, September 3).
According to Lusenko, “the first thing that comes to [his] head when he meets Siberian soldiers fighting in [the eastern Ukrainian region] of Donbas, camouflaged as ‘militiamen of Novorossiya,’ [he] wants to ask: guys, do you not know that they [presumably the Russian government] are selling you and your land at home while you are here fighting in an alien land and will be buried under a stone reading ‘soldier number such and such’?” Moreover, Lusenko says, these Siberian men were sold down the river by Moscow and its agents in the Transbaikal not yesterday but “already in 2010.”
Many Russians have complained about the very idea of renting or selling territory to China, but most of them have reacted entirely emotionally, talking about a flood of Chinese into underpopulated Siberia or about the tendency of Russian women to marry Chinese men and assimilate on their return to China. Lusenko, however, focuses on the details of the controversial deal, which may ultimately not go through because of protests. He particularly calls attention to two aspects: the strategic choice China has made in seeking to rent land in the Transbaikal and the corruption of Russian elites that, even more than Chinese aspirations, appears to be driving the deal.
According to Lusenko, “China is renting land in the Transbaikal not by chance. Control of that region for China is the key to control of all of Siberia. Namely, through here pass the two most important transportation arteries that feed all of Western Siberia, the Far East and Kamchatka. By controlling them,” he writes, “China completely controls a region whose area is comparable with its own territory. And this will happen already quite quickly, when Russia in still more unfavorable conditions than now” goes ahead with the deal.
China’s political aspirations are suggested by the suspicious forest fires that have swept the region. It is quite obvious that these could have been set by “diversionary groups” interested in frightening or even driving out the population in order to make the Chinese deal easier for Russians to swallow. Nikolay Rogozhkin, the presidential plenipotentiary in the Siberian Federal District even suggested this in public, only to be told to shut up by Moscow, which has also restricted coverage of the fires by Russian media.
The timing and manner of Moscow’s decision to pursue this deal is telling, Luzenko says. Rumors about it appeared in 2009, but things really took off during the anti-government protests, when members of the elite began to think about how they could maintain their wealth without changing course. A corrupt deal with China offered a way out, and that is what has happened. Given how much Moscow elites are counting on obtaining money from this deal, their recent opposition to this should not be taken at face value, Lusenko suggests.
That means that Siberia may soon be lost to China, perhaps in a decade or two. To be sure, the commentator says, “Siberia is not as important as Ukraine and the Caucasus, but they are already lost.” Now, apparently, the Russian Far East’s turn has come.