Russia’s East II: The Physical Connection
Anyone who has visited Russia’s eastern provinces, whether on business or on an adventure-driven Trans-Siberian journey, will be all too aware of how different this part of the country feels compared to Russia’s west, and the Volga heartland. On the one hand it is still very Russian, thanks to homogenisation during the Soviet period. On the other hand, there are many allusions to its proximity to its Asian neighbours of China, Korea, Japan and Mongolia. This can most obviously be seen in the cars locals drive, but also in the faces of the people, the languages heard, and not to mention the food on offer.
Vladivostok, which translates literally as ‘Rule the East‘, epitomises this clash/harmony of cultures and outlooks. But for me the city has a different significance. As a Pacific port, it acts as Russia’s gateway to three key world economies: China, Korea and Japan. In fact, Vladivostok is far closer to the capitals of these countries than Moscow. Google Maps estimates it’ll take me 2.5 hours to fly from Vladivostok to Beijing, yet over 8 hours to Moscow. If you are unfamiliar with this area the map below illustrates the distances and sizes we are dealing with.
Nonetheless, the role of Vladivostok, in engaging with Russia’s eastern counterparts, was put on hold for much of the twentieth century. As the home of the country’s naval base, the city was closed to foreigners until 1992. Additionally, as I have already mentioned, the Sino-Russian border was sealed for thirty years. Both of these factors prevented the development of modern day trade and infrastructure links between the two countries. Over the past twenty years this has changed and now, by some estimates, the Vladivostok region has a daily GDP of about $7 trillion – four times higher than the average Russian GDP.
One such scheme boosting cross-border trade in the region is the “Suifenhe Sino-Russian Trade Zone”, which was established in 2009. This 4.53km2 area allows Russians to visit visa-free and to shop! At the end of last year, Chinese authorities made it even easier for Russian visitors, as they announced roubles would be an accepted alternative currency in the town.
These Russian day trippers travel across the border to buy everything and anything for far less than in Russia – from telescopes to alcohol, from Matroshka dolls to a stuffed moose. The goods are tuned to the Russian consumer – sold with bilingual labels, and clothes designed to suit the Russian figure. This cross-border shopping phenomenon was immortalised in 2011 when a mocking You Tube video of Chinese vendors selling their wears on a Russian coach went viral in Russia. The video continues to be one of the top results when searching the Russian letter “а” on Google.
New schemes to facilitate trade are not unique to the more industrial areas of Vladivostok, Suifenhe and Blagoveshchensk. The governments and economists of the two countries are also working towards greater commercial fluidity at other points along the border by improving the regions’ infrastructure. An important step is to open up links across the Argun River which demarcates the border for 1000km. Until thirteen years ago, the only viable way to transport cargo across, was to wait until the river froze over in the winter. In 2001, however, a bridge was opened between Shiweixiang and Olochi.
This so-called “Friendship Bridge” will soon be joined by another far longer bridge across the Amur River. During his May 2014 visit to China, Putin signed for the construction of a 7km rail-bridge between Tongjiang and Nizhneleninskoye, which is due to open in 2016. This new bridge forms part of a three part, $1 billion contribution to infrastructure, tourism and logistics projects in the two countries by the Russia-China Investment Fund. Alongside the bridge, which is expected to have an annual capacity of 21 million tons, there are tourism schemes being instituted in Hainan, Lake Baikal, Vladivostok and Sochi.
Though derelict bunkers can still be found along the border, hostile Sino-Russian relations seem to be a thing of the past. The economic activity along the border is vibrant and exciting. If the Chinese and Russian governments, however, expect to reach – and sustain – their trading targets they need to ensure more work and funding is provided to continue advancing a still very underdeveloped trade environment along the 4000km border.