The Sudden Pairing of Two Russian Vlads

by Greg Shtraks

The concept of “sister” cities is a well-known one – it has been utilized since Keighley, England and Poix-du-Nord, France became twins as a method of reconciliation after World War I. Thus, the twinning of Vladivostok and Vladikavkaz on November 27th was not exactly international news.

On the one hand, Vladikavkaz and Vladivostok are separated by six thousand miles and as geographically and culturally different as any international twin towns. On the other, their partnership marks the first time since the reunification of Germany that two cities within the same country have become “sisters”. Why the sudden pairing of the two Vlads?

Igor Pushkarev, Mayor of Vladivostok, and Sergei Dzantieev, Mayor of Vladikavkaz, emphasized that the decision to twin the cities was based on the “longstanding desire of the local populations to unite our two great cities”. Ironically, this reverie just happened to manifest itself exactly two weeks after President Dmitry Medvedev’s annual address in which he called for a reduction of Russian time zones as a means to make Russia more governable and unified. Equally ironic is that Vladikavkaz and Vladivostok, whose names mean, “control the Caucasus” and “control the East”, respectively, have now become symbols of Moscow’s struggle to retain control over its far-flung empire.

Vladivostok and Vladikavkaz put into perspective the various difficulties that Kremlin has faced in imposing its control over the Russian peripheries. In Vladikavkaz, it is generally agreed that Dzantieev has done a good job as mayor. After all, unlike his two predecessors, Vitaly Karaev and Kazbek Pagiyev, Dzantieev has managed to survive a year in office without being shot down by assassins. Despite this success, in 2009 the situation in the North Caucasus has deteriorated considerably.

Although Ingushetia and Dagestan are the epicenters of insurgency fueled violence, the situation in North Ossetia is also perilous. The province, which was rocked by the Beslan tragedy in 2004, is often the launching pad for Russian wars in the region. As Moscow prepares to deploy an “enormous” amount of troops prior to the 2012 Olympic Games in Sochi, Vladikavkaz could find as the central front in a civil war.

In Vladivostok the situation is far less volatile but equally unstable. Throughout the 1990’s politicians in Primorski Krai spoke ominously of a “yellow peril” separating the Far East from the rest of Russia. Today, with an airplane ticket from Vladivostok to Moscow four times as costly as a ticket to Beijing or Tokyo, those same politicians welcome Chinese, Japanese, and Korean businessmen with open arms. Moscow has tentatively welcomed such investment. For instance, Vladivostok received $3.8 billion in federal funding for infrastructure renovations in preparation for the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference.

However, the ongoing immigration of Far Eastern Russians to China and Japan, coupled with an increasing economic dependency on trade with those countries, has sounded warning bells inside the Kremlin. In February, when a tariff on Japanese cars caused major protests to erupt in Vladivostok, Moscow’s decision to send riot police to quell the violence raised eyebrows throughout the west. Such draconian actions indicate profound insecurity in the region’s long-term stability.

Russia has often tried to unite itself through forced relocation of entire nationalities from one end of the country to another. With such tactics no longer an option, Russia will have to come up with different strategies for national unification. Publicity stunts like the twinning of cities may be a start, but they are unlikely to reverse the ongoing process of disintegration.