Thursday, March 14, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Without an Inspiring Project, Russia Will Disintegrate, Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 14 – Unless Russia’s “ruling class” comes up with a sufficiently grandiose project capable to inspire the population and give it a new “passionate impulse,” there is little chance that the country will remain “a unified state,” according to a scholar at the Presidential Academy of Economics and State Service.

            In an essay in “Yezhednevny zhurnal” yesterday, Ivan Starikov, an economics professor there, argues that Russia has lost its way and that it does not have a “well-thought-out project of it national-state future even for the middle term,” a lack that is leading its regions not to look to Moscow but to foreign states (  

            For the last “quarter of a century,” he continues, “Russian civilization has been living in a complex of national defeat and deepening depression.”  And it won’t be rescued from that by any Olympic Games or any other international competition, however much PR experts will promote them.

            Starikov points to five reasons for his conclusion: “the erosion of the central Russian authorities over the territory of the country,” reliance on raw materials for economic growth, the collapse of the scientific and technical base “inherited by Russia from the USSR,” the lack of investments in infrastructure outside of the petroleum sector, and the growing sense among people in many regions that they are Moscow’s “’colonies’” rather than part of the country.

            That “’colonial complex,’” he suggests is especially strong in Siberia and the Far East where “separatist tendencies” are arising.  Moreover, an increasing number of regions are looking not to Moscow but “to foreign centers of influence”: “the Far East and Eastern Siberia to China and Japan, [and] the North Caucasus to Turkey and the Arab world.”

            Many officials are ignoring this and accepting as a given Russia’s infrastructure problems as a given rather than something that must be overcome not only to boost the country’s growth rate but also to tie it together. Indeed, various ministers recently cited infrastructure “limitations” as the reason why Russia can’t grow as fast as the leadership wants.

            These limitations are in fact all too real, Starikov says.  In 2012, the average speed of the movement of cargo on Russian railways fell to 9.1 kilometers an hour, “a sad record” especially in comparison with the 70 kilometers an hour in Europe and the 90 kilometers an hour in China and a measure of “the scale of our technological backwardness.”

            The Trans-Siberian railroad now carries only 50,000 containers between Asia and Europe each year, a tiny fraction of the 42 million carriers that go between those two industrial centers, mostly by sea, annually. That is something Russia can and must change, and doing so is the kind of national project that can inspire the country, Starikov suggests.

            A “high-speed railway route” across the Russian Federation would be itself “ensure the transition of the country to a different economic model,” from one based on raw materials to one initially based on transportation and then on the industries that would grow up along this route. Indeed, that is what the original Trans-Siberian project did a century ago.

            Built between 1891 and 1916, at an annual rate of 300 to 400 kilometers, the 9288.2 kilometer-long Trans-Siberian required then “not only material means but also unthinkable human efforts” as it lined together “two parts of the earth, 12 oblasts and 87 cities,” Starikov points out.

            Just reconstructing the Trans-Siberian or BAM is not enough. A new high-speed rail corridor must be developed between Europe and Asia. Of that 12,000 kilometer line, 9,000 would be in Russia and so Russia would have the most to gain from such a project, even though it would inevitably be an international one, at least in terms of financing.

            The Russian section of this new line would “connect 25 subjects of the Russian Federation, create from 5.5 to 6.5 million new jobs, and attract international financing and the most advanced technologies,” Starikov says. But it would do more than that: it would provide inspiration to all Russians, just as the Trans-Siberian once did.

            Some people have objected that such a project would involve corruption, but that can’t be an excuse. You have to work with the government you have, Starikov says, because you can’t wait for the government you want.  And the involvement of international investors will limit the level of corruption.

            He says that his “preliminary” estimates of the cost for the Russian section of this rail line are in the range of 220 to250 billion US dollars, an amount that would not be difficult to raise internationally although it would certainly require “the creation of an international consortium” to carry it out.

             In the fall of 2016, Starikov notes, Russia will mar the centennial of the opening of through-traffic on the Trans-Siberian.  That would be “the most suitable moment” to announce the beginning of construction of “a new project” that would not only connect Europe and Asia but help tie Russia together.”

            But to do that, Russians “must now where we are going” and that requires that “the ruling class turn away from philosophy” and focus “only on the here and now. In a word, [that class must] overcome the infrastructure limits of the brain.”  And doing that is likely to prove a more difficult problem than any the new railway would present.

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