Staunton, July 13 – The severe climate, isolation, and lack of opportunities in the Russian Far East are so great, journalist Maria Sotskova says, that the region is “rapidly losing population and even the Chinese aren’t rushing to settle there” (dailystorm.ru/vlast/pokinu-magadan-chinovnikam-tak-i-ne-udalos-zamanit-lyudey-na-dalniy-vostok).
Moreover, she continues, all Moscow’s policies intended to hold the existing population or attract new people – its distribution of free land, its support for the return of compatriots abroad, and attempts to create free economic zones – have all failed because they have not made the region attractive either for current residents or potential new ones.
Yevgeny Bobrov, the deputy chairman of the Human Rights Council says that Moscow wants to keep people there or attract new ones without addressing the underlying social problems in the Russian Far East, something that would require “a complete change in the approach to social policy there.”
People continue to flee the region, mostly to places near Moscow. Since the start of this year, more than 2,000 have left, and the number of births there dropped by another 2,000 during the first quarter, a loss of more than 4,000 that no conceivable amount of immigration is going to compensate for, he suggests.
According to Bobrov, “the majority of the regions of the Far Eastern Federal District are included in the program of resettling compatriots, but the main problem with this state program is that it is directed not so much at compatriots as on the organized placement of labor migrants.” That means that officials and business control things, and potential immigrants are put off.
But even worse, he continues, the state focuses on giving benefits to new people rather than to local residents, something that further alienates the latter without necessarily being sufficient to hold the former.
Officials at the ministry for the development of the Far East say that the region will need 108,000 workers for industry and raw materials extract but that at present there does not seem to be any prospect that the government will be able to attract anything like that number. Consequently, there will be even more economic problems.
Aleksey Korniyenko, a member of the Duma’s committee on regional policy and problems of the North and Far East, agrees with Bobrov that Moscow’s social policy in the region needs to change if there is to be any hope for the future. He suggests that the country should lower the pension age for people who work there.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little prospect for that or for other changes in social policy. Instead, Moscow prefers a campaign style approach including its efforts to use free land as an attraction. But the free hectare program has been a failure. The government says it has attracted 73,000, but in fact, only 17 percent of the new owners live in the Far Eastern FD.
According to Bobrov, the regime would have to offer a minimum of 40 free hectares for the program to make any sense. Those with less land could not be expected to make a go of it economically and consequently won’t stay after the propaganda effort of the regime shifts to something else. Despite that, the powers that be continue to push this notion as a salvation.
One unfortunate, illegal but typically permitted example of what happens, Korniyenko says, is this: people take their free hectare, have all the forest on it cut down and sold, pocket the money, and never go near the place. That despoiling of the land has led to mass cutting which has made the recent flooding worse.
Bobrov says that it is also important for the authorities to recognize that the Far Eastern Federal District is not homogeneous. The southern part is “more or less developed,” but “all the rest is in the deepest decline.” But part of the reason for that is Chinese involvement in the south doesn’t extend northward.
The situation might improve if the government built more roads, but in fact, it isn’t even repairing the roads the region has. Unless that changes, ever more people will leave the region and ever fewer will come, leaving a void that perhaps someone else in the future will fill.