Paul Goble reports:
The expansion of China’s railroad network into the western portions of that country earlier this year means that those who want to ship goods between Europe and Asia are likely to use the quicker and cheaper Chinese route rather than Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railroad, a Vladivostok newspaper has warned. In an article published last Friday, Vladivostok said that this new Eurasian land corridor will deliver massive quantities of goods 20 days quicker than the sea route and 10 days quicker than the Trans-Siberian and that shipping costs will be significantly lower as well.
The economic consequences for Russia’s railroads and ports are both immediately obvious and potentially large, the paper warned. But the article in the Russian Far Eastern daily was especially agitated about the psychological and geopolitical impact of this latest transportation development. On the one hand, the paper said, “if earlier [Russians] with pride could call [their country] the master of virtually the only real transportation corridor between Europe and Asia, then today, this geographic monopoly is obviously coming to an end.” That is all the more a matter of concern because of the extreme sensitivity of Chinese activities affecting the Russian Far East both there and in the Russian capital. (For the latest example, see yesterday’s “Noviy region” agency report about Chinese “seizure” of land in the Urals. And on the other, China’s use of this route, bypassing Siberia and the Russian Far East, will certainly affect both relations between Moscow and many Asian and European partners as well as between European Russia, whose railroads will still carry traffic originating in China, and Asiatic Russia, whose railroads won’t.
Not surprisingly, the paper blamed officials of the Russian railroads for raising prices significantly over the last few years, especially on longer runs. That disturbed many shippers, Vladivostok said, and made them especially open to the new Chinese possibilities.
More to the point, the paper concluded, “the market is the market,” and when sellers compete in terms of price and quality of service, the winner will not be the one with historical bragging rights but rather to those who can offer the best service and the best price, something China but not Russia can now do. Price changes on the Trans-Siberian are not the only ones affecting the Russian Federation’s transportation system at present. Over the past 15 years, prices for domestic Russian air travel have trebled, and they are set to go up another 20 percent or more by next spring. That has reduced the number of Russians who are able to travel from their home regions to other parts of the country, something that has the effect of undermining a sense of community among people living in parts of the country, for whom Moscow and other cities are now even more distant than they were before.
While many Russians continue to use domestic airlines, the percentage of the population doing so has fallen dramatically since Soviet times, when virtually everyone made use of Aeroflot’s heavily subsidized but extraordinarily extensive route system to move about the country. And as a result, one news agency has suggested, “it is the rare Russian [who] flies to the middle of the country” from its edges. And in some distant areas, flights either have been cancelled altogether or occur only when at irregular intervals the number of passengers reaches a certain percentage of the seats. For people living in European Russia, that is not a major problem: train travel there is not too time consuming or expensive, especially after Moscow decided last month to up its subsidies for passenger rail traffic. But the situation in Siberia and the Far East is very different. There travel by rail is enormously time-consuming or not possible, and travel by plane is out of the question for many Sibiryaki. As they travel back and forth to the center less often, they are likely to decide to move away from the Far East – something Moscow does not want – or focus on local identities – something the center also opposes.
Thus, quite below the radar screen, changes in transportation arrangements both around Russia and inside have taken place that are likely to have a far greater impact on the economy and polity of Russia than the far more public debates in advance of the parliamentary and presidential elections.