Ethnic-Russian flight from the Far East is again increasing, after appearing to stabilize a few years ago. This development not only changes the balance of ethnic groups living there—few non-Russians are leaving, and many have higher fertility rates than the Russians—but also shifts the region’s broader geopolitical balance, given the size of China’s population and the increasing involvement of Chinese firms in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Moscow has proclaimed that it wants to develop the region and thus maintain the Russian population there. But to date, none of its initiatives have been effective. Most projects, like the much-ballyhooed plans for a casino in Vladivostok, have been an occasion either for corruption or—what may be worse in the current situation—attracting more foreigners into the region at the expense of the local population. Indeed, locals are likely to view that as yet another reason for their own departure.
The total population of Russia east of Lake Baikal grew throughout much of the Soviet period, sometimes as a result of forced movements of people—via resettlement and the GULAG—and later as the result of special premiums paid to those who agreed to work there. Both forces increased the share of ethnic Russians in the region as well. In 1991, the total population of the region was 8.1 million, a greater share of whom were ethnic Russians than in the Russian Federation as a whole. But with the collapse of both coercion and subsidies, Russians began to leave in massive numbers. By 2003, the total population had fallen to 6.6 million, and the share of ethnic Russians had declined as well.
By the end of 2010, the situation appeared to have stabilized, but now the outflow of the population has resumed at an even greater rate, with the total falling to six million and the share of Russians once more declining. Indeed, so many working-age Russians have left that those businesses and government agencies that want to develop the region are having to import workers either from Central Asia or from China, both of which are triggering the departure of even more ethnic Russians and lowering their share of the population still further. If the current trend continues, there will be fewer than five million residents in the Russian Far East by the end of this decade, and the share of ethnic Russians in many areas will fall to 50 percent or less, creating a situation in which both Chinese investors and non-Russian nationalists may press for more power. In either case, Moscow will certainly view these outcomes as secessionist threats (Deita.ru, October 28).
The central Russian government claims it is doing everything it can to hold people in the Far East. It created a special ministry for the development of the region (see EDM, June 1, 2012). It invested heavily in preparations for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, hosted in Vladivostok (see EDM, September 13, 2012). And it has argued that its promotion of Chinese and other foreign investments in the Far East works to the advantage of the region’s population in general and the ethnic-Russian component of that population as well.
But numerous locals and many expert observers disagree. Russian analyst Yury Krupnov, for example, says that Russians continue to leave the Far East because the central government “never listens” to people from the region (Krupnov.livejournal.com, January 10). He points out that government media constantly talk about Moscow’s concern for the development of the Far East and suggest what it is doing is slowing the outflow of the population. But this is not the case. In fact, what Moscow is doing is standing in the way of developing the region and causing even more people to emigrate to other parts of the country.
He gives three examples of such self-defeating policies: First, transportation both within the region and between it and European Russia has broken down, making it impossible for people to create businesses or expand them. Second, there are now so few workers in the region that outside investors have to bring in their own labor force. Foreign companies routinely bring in Central Asian or Chinese workers, which leads more ethnic Russians to leave.
And third, the Russian government’s support for monopolies is creating real obstacles. It is now cheaper for a Russian firm in the Far East to buy electricity in China that was originally generated in Russia and then exported than to buy power directly from the same Russian company domestically. That is typical of the kinds of bottlenecks that the center’s failure to attend to the needs of the region are creating in many sectors, Krupnov says.
He concludes by observing that “one can talk as much as one likes about the development of the Far East, create various administrations and institutions, [and] give enormous sums to various bureaucrats and agencies, [but] nothing will change” until Moscow focuses on the needs of the Russian people in the Russian Far East. If the government does not do this soon, the region could eventually completely empty itself of Russians, and may not even remain a part of the country for much longer.