Staunton, December 21 – In Soviet times, many Russians referred to the occupied Baltic countries as “our abroad” because the three, so different from their own world, could be visited without permission from the USSR or a visa from another country. Now, some in Moscow are thinking about setting up a similar internal “abroad” in the Russian Far East.
According to an article in “Izvestiya” by Petr Kozlov, the Russian Ministry for the Development of the East is considering a variety of options in order to reverse the decline in the population of the Far East Federal District and even boost it from the current six million to ten million residents over the coming years (izvestia.ru/news/562806).
Most of the proposals under discussion are conventional: tax breaks and subsidies for businesses, construction of new housing and the like. The problem with these is that they all have high price tags and may be beyond Moscow’s capacity at a time of increasing budgetary stringency.
That makes the others, which ministry officials are calling “the New Holland” option, more intriguing. They involve making legal in the Far East things that are illegal or restricted elsewhere in the Russian Federation. If adopted, these would effectively make that enormous region an internal “abroad” for a new generation of Russians.
Among the ideas being floated in this regard, Kozlov says, are lifting restrictions on prospecting for gold and other valuable minerals, tax-free sale of alcohol and cigarettes, the opening of casinos and gaming houses, and perhaps most intriguing of all “the opening of gay clubs and bordellos.”
Another proposal calls for freeing from military obligation young men who agree to work in the Far East, a deferment that would last as long as they remained in that region, “Izvestiya” says. And still more, the ministry is considering plans to establish universities and research institutes there to make the Russian Far East a center of creative life.
As President Vladimir Putin indicated in his recent message to the Federal Assembly, developing the Russian Far East will be a Moscow priority throughout the 21st century. In October, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for the development of a government strategy to do that. And the current swirl of ideas appears to be part of that process.
Officials of the ministry speaking on the record sought to disassociate their institution from the most radical ideas, suggesting that they were the product of brain-storming sessions of outside experts. But one anonymous source there told “Izvestiya” that such ideas are being discussed inside the ministry although he suggested that they might not reach the top.
Three aspects of such discussions are worthy of note. First, they are an intriguing indication that many in Moscow are quite prepared to violate Putin’s much-ballyhooed commitment to “a common legal space” across the entire Russian Federation if that is the only way to develop key regions.
Second, going forward with some of these ideas in one region of the Russian Federation could ultimately force Moscow to allow them elsewhere. If Russians learned that people in the Far East were living more freely than themselves, some might go there, but others might demand that the center extend similar freedoms to themselves.
And third, at a time when regional identities are strengthening, a decision by Moscow to make the Russian Far East this different from the rest of the country could trigger secessionist demands there. That would be especially ironic but in one sense historically consistent: The Soviet Union’s “internal abroad” after all was the first part to escape Moscow’s control.