Russia's 'Pivot to Asia' Encounters New Difficulties

During his first trip to the Russian Far East as prime minister, berated the inadequate level of infrastructure of the local seaport in Magadan (on the Sea of Okhotsk), which, he noted, hindered the surrounding region’s economic development and international outreach (Korabel.ru, August 17). In pointing out these limitation, Mishustin tacitly acknowledged that Russia’s policy aimed at strengthening its trade ties with other Asia-Pacific countries was experiencing visible difficulties. Nicknamed the “Pivot to Asia,” this policy’s foundations were laid down by former Russian prime minister (1998–1999) Yevgeny Primakov at the end of the 1990s, before being informally announced by in early 2012 (Mn.ru, February 27, 2012). President Putin reiterated the Pivot to Asia in his 2013 address to the Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) (Interfax, December 12, 2013). Broadly speaking, the policy argues for changing Russia’s civilizational paradigm (from European to Eurasian) and shifting economic ties eastward (from the European Union to the Asia-Pacific) by making Siberia and the Far East “Russia’s national priority for the 21st century.” Now, almost six years later, it appears that despite a few tangible and rhetorical successes (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 12, 2019), the strategy is floundering due to important systemic and structural obstacles.

Russia faces challenges in implementing its Pivot for four main reasons:

First is the lack of a comprehensive approach on how to overcome the socio-economic hardships faced by Siberia and the Far East, which “continue to be Russia’s least developed, if not depressed regions” (Anatoly Torkunov, Dmitry Streltsov and Ekaterina Koldunova, Rossijskii Povorot na Vostok: Dostizhenia, Problemi i Perspektivi, 2020). Relatedly, the government has been unable to improve the negative public perceptions of this macro-region among Russians. Despite creating “regional enclaves of stability,” much of the Siberia and Far East is highly unattractive (“the middle of nowhere”) for settlers and businesses.

Second is Moscow’s growing Sino-centrism. Indeed, the key economic pillar of the entire Pivot to Asia was premised on strengthening economic ties with China as a way to revitalize the region. Now, however, many local thinkers and intellectuals have come to see the limitations of this approach. Though an important source of raw materials, Russia occupies a marginal (in comparison with other Asia-Pacific players) role in China’s overall foreign trade and economic ties (Eurasia.expert, January 21). At the same time, some (rather inconclusive) attempts to diversify regional cooperation by engaging India, Japan and South Korea have yielded minimal results, which is “unlikely to change” (Valdaiclub.com, July 1, 2019). Having primarily become a source of raw materials to the EU since the end of the Cold War, Russia is now repeating this economic development path in the Asia-Pacific region in general, and with China in particular.

Third is the greater prevalence of diplomacy and politics over economics and trade. Despite impressive diplomatic/political achievements, Russia has been unable to convert these into sustainable economic gains. As noted by Professor Leonid Bliakher of the Pacific National University (Khabarovsk), Russian businessmen remain “foreign bodies [in the Asia-Pacific],” ill-disposed to regional economic realities. In a broader sense, Asian countries arguably do not consider Russia to be a genuinely attractive venue for investments; and Russia’s share in the economy of the Asia-Pacific region is marginal (Asiarussia.ru, February 21, 2019).

Fourth, inhabitants of the Far East consider the Pivot to Asia initiative an artificial, Moscow-lobbied/-generated project that does not adequately assess local realities nor invite the participation or input of the local population. Moreover, in Siberia, there is growing dissatisfaction over its de facto exclusion, despite pompous rhetoric, from major lucrative economic projects (Globalaffairs.ru, September 13, 2018). In effect, the federal center has been unable to clearly explain to the locals how and by what means it is planning to upgrade regional living standards while preserving local identity and unique regional traits and characteristics. In a broader sense—and this has been vividly demonstrated in the scope of the protests that broke out in Khabarovsk Krai (starting on July 11, 2020) over the arrest of local governor Sergei Furgal (see EDM, August 3, 4)—the sense of alienation and discontent with Moscow is clearly on the rise in eastern Russia.

As such, it is worth paying close attention to an article co-authored last month by Russian scholar Anastasia Likhacheva and conservative thinker and former advisor to Boris Yeltsin and Sergey Karaganov. The latter is deemed one of the main supporters of the Kremlin’s Pivot to Asia strategy. In their piece, the writers openly admit that, for the past year and a half, the strategy has not been moribund, with Russia risking loss of momentum needed to accomplish its “civilizational transformation.” Among other aspects, they argue that the main problem hindering or outright halting progress is inadequate attention paid to human capital in the Far East and Siberia. This converts the local population, which is supposed to be the driving force in the process of transformation, into a passive and disinterested object. The article further warns that while Moscow is concentrating on economic and technocratic leverage, it is missing the “social” piece, which alienates locals and creates a gap between the macro-region and European Russia. In this regard, Moscow (and the rest of Russia) are viewed by the locals as an incompetent “metropolis,” whose participation in Far Eastern affairs is highly undesirable. Likhacheva and Karaganov, therefore, argue that Russia must choose one of three options. First is the “colonial” approach, which boils down to a simple exploitation of local natural resources. Second is the “paternalistic” approach, which—much in line with the Soviet experience (although excluding the tilt toward militarization)—de facto largely resembles the “colonial” approach but with a fairer redistribution of profits between the center and the periphery. Third is the “federative” approach, “the most difficult one […] but the only sustainable option,” which envisages building mutual trust and the federal center granting more room for maneuver to the far-flung region (Globalaffairs.ru, October 16).

Despite the government boasting of multiple successes in its turn toward Asia, many Russian conservative intellectuals, including ardent supporters of this strategy, are in fact incredibly concerned with the (wrong) direction the policy is taking. Although, at the intellectual level, this understanding is indeed growing, there is no evidence that the Russian side has a clear blueprint for how this course should be corrected. From a strategic point of view, the Pivot to Asia may inadvertently further divide the Far East and Siberia from the rest of Russia.

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