Thursday, February 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow ‘Fears Losing the North But Doesn’t Know What to Do with It,’ Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 21 – With much pomp, the Russian government has promulgated a new “Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation” for the next seven years, but experts say that they fear that this plan for the North will remain only on paper because Moscow “fears losing the North but doesn’t know what to do with it.”

            In an article on the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal today, Aleksey Polubota says that people in the Russian North would like to believe otherwise because the strategy calls for the development of transportation infrastructure, energy production, and high technology industries which could attract new residents (

            But Polubota says, “those who have lived in the conditions of the Russian Arctic over the last 20 years long ago stopped hoping” that Moscow will do more than put out “paper plans” and then forget all about them. They know that the government has not built up its ice breaker fleet because of costs even as it spends “tens of billions of dollars” on the Sochi Olympics.

            And Russia’s Northerners often ask the entirely “reasonable” question: Even if the Russian government does come up with the amount of money that  the new strategy will require, will that money actually be invested in needed projects or will it disappear into the pockets of bureaucrats and politicians?

            Anatoly Zhuravlev, director of the Moscow Institute of Regional Problems, says that Russia has always been a country of heroic campaigns, but “the question is when and why is this or that campaign necessary?” Given that other countries want to move into the Arctic and push Russia aside, Moscow has to respond, but building infrastructure “is not a goal in and of itself.”

            When Stalin “through enormous resources” into the Arctic regions, the Soviet leader supposed that “there would be large cities there” and built railways along the Arctic Ocean, but “now to build new cities in the Arctic is insanity because at the center of Russia, we have cities in the 100,000-population range which are emptying out.”

            Moscow hopes that the private sector will take the lead, but “no business, not Russian or Western will come into regions” where the costs are so high that it cannot hope to make a profit, Zhuravlev says. And building new roads and ports will not necessarily change business calculations in that respect.

             The regional specialist was dismissive of the strategy document as such. He said that in his opinion it had appeared as the result of the nature of the Russian bureaucracy.  Putin said that the arctic was a priority and “therefore the bureaucrats whether you want them to or not have had to write this strategy.”

            The case of the Shtokman field shows how things are likely to work, he said.  Local residents have been living on promises for 15 years, but Western firms aren’t interested in entering the business unless they can do so without making massive investments and can be sure that they will turn a profit, just as was the case on Sakhalin.

            Moscow could change this by making it a government effort, but in the center today, Zhuravlev says, people want more privatization not less.  That isn’t going to work in this case, and he expressed the fear that as a result of this “strategy,” a new set of “ghost ports” would appear alongside the emptied “Stalinist depos from Vorkuta to the Far East.”

            Natalya Zubarevich, a geographer at Moscow State University, said that the strategy’s proposals for developing rail traffic made good sense because they were very specific, but “everything else is just words, words, words. There is no money for a frontal attack to conquer the Arctic,” and the document as written is “economically ineffective.”

            The Northern Sea Route “a such now does not exist,” or rather only a small section of it is functioning, from Dudinka to Murmansk. And there has not been started even “a single oil and gas project on the shelf.” In short, she said, “our bureaucrats write a lot about a strategy but they do not go much beyond the paper it is written on.”

            And Vladmir Blinov, vice president of the Association of Investigators of the Arctic, was even more skeptical.  There have been a few small successes, but talk about new ports has remained just that.  And the new strategy document however often it is referred to in the media is unlikely to change that.

            The situation could change if Moscow would display “political will” and would remember that “Russia is a northern country and tied to the North. If we want to keep these territories for ourselves,” we have to make them economically viable. If we don’t, Blinov said, “other governments” will do so because they do not believe that Russia should have “a special place” in the Arctic.

            If one thinks historically, Blinov says, one must acknowledge that over the last 100 years, “no other country has achieved there what Russia has … If the USSR had not developed its icebreaker fleet, Russia would have lost the North a long time ago.”  But that will require “political will,” and that may not be available.

             Meanwhile, settlements along the Arctic coast are dying, and their deaths will force Russia “to begin again from zero.”  In some places, that is already happening: new places are being built even as older ones are falling apart.  This is how we live,” Blinov concludes, “first we build and then we throw away what we have put up.”

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