Late last month, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev made a startling admission. Speaking at a conference on social-economic development in Kamchatka, he said: “If we do not step up the level of activity of our work [in the Russian Far East], then in the final analysis we can lose everything.” What Medvedev’s words betray is the fear of Russia’s leaders that their country may not hold together.
Even though this may come as a shock to many, the only surprise is the frankness with which Medvedev expressed himself. So much so that one Russian news agency described his statement as “unprecedented.” But whether Russian officials admit it or not, it is a matter of historical record that Russia has never been a stable nation. Rather it has always been a country that struggled to maintain its territorial cohesiveness. This was the case under the Czars, under the communists and also in the post-Soviet era.
The most recent reminder of Russia’s inherent instability is Chechnya. A few years ago, Chechnya nearly broke away and it was only with greatest difficulties that the Kremlin managed to hold it within the Russian Federation. The trouble there, however, is far from over. Tensions simmer and there is a general feeling that another flare up may occur soon.
But Chechnya is not the only independence-minded portion of Russia. There are other regions where breakaway sentiments prevail. This situation is a result of factors and trends that create centrifugal forces that threaten to rip the country apart.
To begin with, Russia’s sheer size is in itself a destabilizing factor. At 17,075,200 sq km, Russia is the largest country in the world. Spanning one third of the length of Europe and the whole length of Asia, Russia’s east-west extent stands at an astounding 9,000 km. The immense sprawl of Russia’s territory is brought home when we consider the countries it borders: Norway in the west, China in the south, and North Korea in the southeast. In the east, the shores of Alaska lie only some 80 kilometres across the Bering Strait.
The geographic location of the capital is not conducive to effective governance. Situated on the western edge of Russia, Moscow is more than 8000 km and ten times zones removed from the country’s eastern border. It took Medvedev longer to fly from Moscow to his conference in Kamchatka than it takes to fly from New York to London.
The deficient state of the country’s infrastructure makes governing such a vast territory all the more difficult. A couple of comparisons will illustrate the scope of the problem. The United States, a country whose territory is roughly half that of Russia, has nearly eight times more paved roadways (4,165,110 km vs. 722,000 km) and six times more railways (226,612 km vs. 87,157 km). The contrast in air infrastructure is even starker. The number of airports in America exceeds the number of airports in Russia by a factor of sixteen. The lack of proper infrastructure is made worse by its condition. Many Russian roads, especially outside of major urban areas, are poorly maintained and less than half of its railways are electrified.
Clifford J. Levy recently highlighted Russia’s infrastructure crises in an article in The New York Times:
Even as Russia has experienced strong growth in recent years, driven by oil and gas revenue, it has not achieved gains in diversifying its economy. Nor has it had significant success in modernizing decrepit roadways, power grids and housing.
Christopher Weafer, chief strategist at Uralsib Bank in Moscow, concurs: “Over the last eight years, they have gotten $1.3 trillion in oil and gas revenues, but that money has not been able to bring up the country’s infrastructure.”
The situation of Kamchatka, the region where Medvedev made his startling comments, is illustrative of the problem. A large peninsula comparable in size to Japan, Kamchatka is not connected to the rest of Russia by mainland transport lines. Its regional capital is the world’s second largest city (after Iquitos in Peru) that cannot be reached by road. Maksim Perov, an expert on Russia’s regional development recently said that the country’s Far East is for all practical purposes “completely cut off from the rest of Russia.” Perov suggested that that the region would be better off working with the neighboring Asian countries rather that waiting for help from Moscow. This would only seem logical, since Asian imports already constitute 90 percent of the region’s consumer market. In light of this we should not be surprised at the Kremlin’s concerns that the region may try to break away and join itself to thriving Asian economies such as China, Japan and South Korea.
The lack of infrastructure integration and the accompanying regional isolation is further exacerbated by the inadequacy of Russia’s communication networks. Although there has been a rapid increase in the number of mobile subscribers, there is a pressing shortage of landlines, a prerequisite for economic growth and intra-regional cohesiveness. The situation is particularly dire in rural areas where telephone services are technologically substandard and of low density.
The composition of the Russian population poses another serious problem. As could be expected, Russia’s vast landmass is home to many different peoples. There are, in fact, more than 120 distinct ethnic groups each with its own language. They range from the Europeanized ethnic Russians in the west to the Chuckchi in the northeast who live in skin-covered tents, milk reindeer and practise animism. Naturally there are profound differences in term of worldview and attitudes among such varied groups. This makes achieving national unity a difficult if not an impossible task.
The most numerous group are ethnic Russians who make almost 80 percent of the country’s population. It is this group that has ruled Russia for centuries. Most of the other groups have never cared much for the Russians and their feelings toward them have usually ranged from ambivalence to open hostility. The feeling is mutual. According to one survey more than one third of Russians think that the nation’s multi-ethnic composition is harmful to the country.
Russia’s rulers have historically tried to consolidate their power by resettling ethnic Russians in the East. That was often a painful and unpleasant experience as citizens generally resisted relocating to far off and dangerous places. Things were particularly brutal under Stalin who enforced this policy with his characteristic ruthlessness. Today most ethnic Russians living in the non-European sector of Russia are second, third or later generation. Many of them now consider Asia their home and feel no particular loyalty to Moscow thousands of kilometres away.
In addition to a lack of national cohesion, Russia does not have enough people to efficiently harness its vast territory and make use of the land’s immense natural wealth. Even though Russia is nearly twice the size of the US, its population of 140 million is more than two times smaller than that of America. At 8.4 people per square kilometre, Russia’s population density is among the lowest in the world. The lack of population is most palpable east of the Urals where population density is three people per square kilometre. With most of those people concentrated in cities, large stretches of Russia’s Asian interior are virtually devoid of human presence.
Under populated at present, the problem is only going to grow worse in the years ahead. Due to the low birth rates (1.4 per woman) and short life expectancy (barely 59 years for males) the Russian population is declining at an alarming rate. According to estimates by the UN, the number of Russians will drop by a third by mid-century. It is difficult to see how such a decimation of the already scarce human base would not invite national collapse.
Russia’s enormous size, its lack of cultural cohesion, its sparse and fast shrinking population, its deficient infrastructure and lack of communication lines, are some of the factors that feed the disintegration pressures within Russia. Medvedev’s speech in Kamchatka showed just how worried the Kremlin is about the possibility of the country breaking apart. This is how Russian information service RBC News reported his words:
“Even seemingly unshakable things sometimes end in a very dramatic manner,” he [Medvedev] warned, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Inaction will only bring about dramatic consequences, and they will be fast in coming, the President said, urging officials into action.
It is paradoxical that even as it seeks to claim superpower status, there is a distinct possibility that Russia may not survive in its present form for very long.