Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Is Holding on to Siberia Holding Russia Back?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 4 – A new debate has broken out in Moscow over the extent to which Siberia with its enormous natural resources is a curse that is keeping Russia from modernizing its economy and political system – or, to put it in the baldest terms, whether or not holding on to Siberia is in fact holding Russia back.

            Over the past decade, there have been many discussions in the Moscow media about whether Russia is suffering from “the Dutch disease” that Western social scientists have applied to many countries where the export of natural resources has led to a decline in the manufacturing sector and other ills.

            But what makes the discussion in Moscow this week interesting is that instead of a broad discussion about the applicability of this term to Russia, two writers have staked out positions as to whether it could best be addressed by allowing Siberia, what one of the authors describes as “an enormous raw materials colony,” to go its own way.

            In “Vedomosti” yesterday, Mikhail Zelyov, a doctoral candidate at Moscow State University, argues that “the modernization of Russia has been blocked” by the presence within it of Siberia, a source of enormous natural wealth that Moscow has been exploiting like “a colony” (

                Most people in Russia, he argues, are inclined to blame Russia’s de-industrialization and failure to make the democratic transition on “the ineffectiveness of the political regime, the lack of political will and  a clear vision of the goals of development, and the lack of interest in the political elite in changing the current situation.”

            As a result, “the hopes of the progressive part of society are connected with the change of the political regime” which this portion of society believes will happen as a result of “a new fall in world prices for energy and raw materials.”  “No one supposes,” Zelyov says, that “the modernization of Russia is in principle impossible.”

            But in fact, this is exactly the case, the “Vedomosti” writer argues, as long as Russia holds on to Siberia, an enormous raw materials colony” and a major contributor to “the Dutch disease” that the Russian Federation is suffering from.   

            As the last years of Soviet power and the first years of Russian statehood showed, even with low oil prices, the country’s political elite preferred to become rentiers  on the basis of raw materials exports rather than the leaders of a re-modernization of the country and the development of high technology.

            During all that time and even when oil and gas prices rose again, supplies of raw materials from Siberia and their sale abroad have supported a deeply conservative elite that isn’t interested in initiating development because such development could threaten it wealth and power.

            As a result, Russia de-industrialized and its social structure changed, with groups that are essential to modernization declining or even facing extinction and with the rise of a “powerful conservative coalition, more or less beneficially parasitizing on natural rents and not interested in any modernization.”

            Given that social structure, there is little hope that a modernizing government will ever come to power, even if oil prices fall back as they appear to be doing, Zelyov says.  Moreover, he continues, there is no “rational basis” for hopes that there will be a change in the country’s social order that will lead to the institutionalization of democracy.

            Such conclusions, the writer continues, are suggested by the sad fate of most countries that depend primarily on the export of raw materials, and the few exceptions, including Canada, Indonesia, and South Africa, are situated very differently than Russia, something that few are willing to take seriously.

            “For Russia,” Zelyov argues, “the ‘resource curse’ takes the concrete form of ‘the Siberian curse.’  As long as Siberia belong to it, the successful modernization of Russia is impossible in principle.”

            As Zelyov himself acknowledges, he is not the first to link the modernization and democratization of Russia to the independence of Siberia.  In 1992, A. Treyvish and V. Shuper argued that “if beyond the Urals began an ocean, then Russia would long ago have become a full member of the community of civilized countries” (

            Given the breadth and radicalism of Zelyov’s argument, it is not surprising that it has already provoked attacks and is certain to generate even more in the coming days.  The very first as offered by Aleksandr Romanov late yesterday (

                Dismissing Zelyov as an unknown and his argument as neither “new” or complete, he says that its superficial attractiveness fades on examination. Russian society is not nearly as simple as Zelyov suggests and thus the prospects for change and modernization are greater than the Moscow State University student allows and do not require Siberian independence.

                Moreover, Romanov says, drawing analogies with other countries is meaningless because each country is different, Russia certainly so.  But he does appear to agree with Zelyov on two points.  On the one hand, he says, a decline in the price of oil will not help the situation or force anyone to look for new ways of development.

            And on the other, Romanov says, Russia isn’t headed toward democracy, not because it controls Siberia as Zelyov imagines, but rather because Russia has had anything but a happy experience in dealing with democracy. However, if Siberia “did not exist,” that would not necessarily change.

No comments:

Post a Comment