Population Flight Leaving Russia’s Far East Increasingly Less Russian

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 103

(Source: TASS)

Executive Summary:

  • The population of the Russian Far East has fallen by almost a third since 1991, a decline that is accelerating again despite Putin’s efforts to stop it. One-third of those remaining say they want to leave, and another third likely share those plans.
  • The region’s population is becoming not only smaller but less ethnically Russian. Ethnic Russians in the region are far more likely to leave than other groups, with migrants from Central Asia, North Korea, and China forming increased shares of the remaining inhabitants.
  • This demographic shift is fueling fears in Moscow that the Russian Far East is becoming less Russian and more restive and that it may fall under outside, likely Chinese, control or alternatively pursue an independent future.

The population of Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District, an enormous resource-rich territory twice the size of India but with fewer than seven million people, is not only declining in size but becoming less ethnically Russian as well. The total population of the region has fallen by 20 percent since 1991 and is now declining at an accelerating rate. The Russian share of that population, while still a majority, is declining as well, with ever more regions within the federal district no longer being more than 50-percent ethnic Russian (see EDM, November 4, 2015; Sibreal.org, September 29, 2020). In large measure, these longstanding trends, both of which have intensified since the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expanded war against Ukraine, are the result of Russian flight. Ethnic Russians find it easier to leave the region than do members of other groups. This reality has been accompanied by three other developments that are changing the face of the Russian Far East but have received less attention. First, Chinese, North Korean, and Central Asian migrant workers are filling the gaps left behind by departing Russians (Demreview.hse.ru, accessed July 9). Second, the non-Russians in the region are increasing in self-confidence and assertiveness even as they are also declining in number—but at a rate less than that of ethnic Russians (T.me/freeyakutiafoundation, July 7). Third, the incompletely Russified ethnic Ukrainian community that once dominated the southern portion of what is now the Far Eastern Federal District is recovering its values, if not yet identity. Many in Moscow see this renewed spirit of independence behind the anti-Kremlin protests in Khabarovsk (Sibreal.org, September 29, 2020; Kavkazgeoclub.ru, June 20).

Moscow has been trying, without much success, to limit or reverse these trends (see EDM, January 25, 2018; Region.expert, May 16). Putin’s own policies, which allow China access to Siberia and the Russian Far East to cement Beijing’s alliance with Moscow against the West, however, are increasingly undercutting the Kremlin’s demographic goals so far as the Russian Far East is concerned (see EDM, April 28, 2016, February 6, 2023, January 23; RBC, April 5). This failure and its spreading consequences are causing more Russian officials and analysts to warn that the demographic developments and efforts by China, on the one hand, and Ukraine and the West, on the other, are threatening Moscow’s control of the region and even Russia’s territorial integrity (see EDM, January 18, June 8, 2023; Beregrus.ru, June 17; Kavkazgeoclub.ru, June 20). The results of a new survey just released at a conference in the Far East will only add fuel to this fire and place more strain on Moscow’s relations with China and the West.

The poll was conducted among more than 1,200 residents of the Far Eastern Federal District this spring to determine the attitudes of Russian speakers in the region about leaving for other parts of Russia. The results were released at the end of June at a Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk media conference (Baikal-daily.ru, July 6; Alsakh.ru, July 8). While officials across the Far East sought to put a positive face on things, the poll’s results are so alarming that two Novyye izvestiya journalists, Nikolay Vladimirov and Andrey Krasnobayev, chose to headline their report “Flight to the West: The Far East Continues to Lose Its Russian-Speaking Population” (Newizv.ru, July 7).

According to the poll, a third of the Russian-speaking population still in the Far East now says that it wants to move elsewhere because of the depressed state of the economy, the isolation of the region from the rest of Russia, and pressure from immigrants coming from China and elsewhere. That figure has allowed some Russian officials to claim that two-thirds of all ethnic Russians in the Far East do not want to go anywhere. A closer examination, however, shows that the share of working-age Russians who want to leave is much higher and that another third of all Russians would apparently like to leave the region as well. This of course means that roughly two-thirds of the remaining ethnic Russians want to relocate, an enormous proportion. If even a majority of those were to do so, other nationalities, including both indigenous non-Russians and incompletely Russified Ukrainians, would form a majority of the population. Such a development will make it far more difficult for Moscow to maintain control over the region and far more likely that at least some in the region will look to independence or foreign countries such as China will dominate the situation.

Another finding of the poll is likely to spark alarm in Moscow. The survey found that Far Eastern identity is so strong that 62 percent of those taking part said that even when people from that region leave to live elsewhere, they retain their identity as Far Easterners. This suggests that the regional identity may now be stronger than the ethnic identities that Moscow has used to play off one another to maintain control. That finding also indicates that groups, including Muslims from Central Asia, may be cooperating with residents of the region, with the latter taking up Islamist ideas. Some Russian analysts even see these various groups linking up and reinforcing one another (Kavkazgeoclub.ru, June 20). This reality likely means that incompletely Russified Ukrainians in the Far East may be influencing ethnic Russians there with ideas of freedom and independence in precisely the ways that some Russian commentators allege has already begun to happen (Sibreal.org, September 29, 2020).

None of this means that the Russian Far East is going to secede in whole or in part anytime soon or that China or anyone else is going to seize it. Nevertheless, it does mean that Russian control of this vital region will increasingly rest on coercion unless and until Moscow devotes vastly more resources to it than the Kremlin has in the past. The situation also reflects that playing divide-and-rule ethnic policies in the Far East will no longer work. Playing up what many in Moscow see as a Chinese threat may prove counterproductive, with ever more residents in this enormous region seeing the Kremlin and its cooperation with Beijing as a threat rather than something benefiting them. The longer Moscow remains at odds with the West and the more it tries to turn to the East, then greater are the possibilities that it may lose what it has generally believed is not at risk—a genuinely Russian Far East.