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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Looking East From Moscow

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Despite its self-identification as a Eurasian power, the Russian Federation has not devoted much attention to the Pacific rim and thus has failed to profit from the economic boom taking place there.

Instead, Tokyo's ambassador to Moscow said on Wednesday that Russia has remained far too heavily focused on Western Europe and the United States.

Takeshiro Togo's comments to a group of Russian foreign policy specialists represent a useful corrective to suggestions ever more frequently heard in the West that Moscow has or will turn its back on Europe and choose to link its fate to China and other Asian powers.

But more significantly, they call attention to three aspects of Russian reality that many analysts and commentators have neglected.

First, despite invocations of Russia's special status as a Eurasian power, Russian politicians and Russians more generally define themselves in terms of Europe rather than in terms of Asia.

And this concern with being considered "European" helps to explain why the issue of NATO enlargement so unsettles many Russians. They see their continued exclusion from the alliance even as others are taken in as a indications that other Europeans do not view Russia as a European country.

Second, Russia's ability to look to the Pacific rim is severely limited by political factors that define relations between itself and the major powers there.

On the one hand, while Russia and China have moved toward a more cooperative relationship, they are unlikely to become allies as some in the West have speculated. Neither country is prepared to accept a position subordinate to the other, and neither has figured out how to have a relationship of genuine equality.

And on the other hand, Russia and Japan -- despite the ambassador's appeal for better ties -- are unlikely to develop them any time soon.

The dispute over the status of the Kurile islands, which Moscow seized at the end of World War II but which Tokyo still claims, appears to be no closer to resolution than it has been at any time in the past. And unless it is resolved little progress is possible.

At present, no Russian leader could yield these islands, one of the most important symbols of Russia's status as an ally and victor in that conflict. And no Japanese leader could offer much assistance to Moscow unless it returns islands which virtually all Japanese believe belong to them.

Thus, at the political level, there is little chance that Moscow is going to be able to reach out to the Pacific rim powers and benefit from the economic boom there as Ambassador Togo recommends.

And third, Russia lacks the infrastructure to significantly expand its trade with the Pacific rim states. European Russia, which is where most Russian industry is located, is linked to Vladivostok by no major highways and only two double-track rail lines.

Consequently, any trade between the Russia and the Pacific rim states would in fact almost certainly be between the Russian Far East and those other countries. And any expansion of that trade would have significant and negative political consequences for Moscow and for Moscow's relations with its farflung regions.

Much of the trade between the Russian Far East and the Pacific rim states is and will remain the Russian export of raw materials and Russian import of manufactured goods. That pattern infuriates many Russians who see it as evidence that outsiders are exploiting them.

But even more, trade of this kind provide additional money for regions and regional elites and thus almost inevitably makes them more independent-minded than they might otherwise be, something Moscow finds impossible to accept.

Indeed, on the very day Togo made his remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov complained to the Duma that some regions in Russia -- including the Far East -- were seeking to play an independent role in foreign affairs.

Their actions, he said, were often "bizarre and unconstitutional." And he urged that regional leaders work more closely with his ministry which he argued would be happy to help them achieve their goals in a more normal way.

For this reason if no other, many in the Russian capital would be anything but pleased to see Russia's Pacific rim take off economically.

Japanese Ambassador Togo's words thus are unlikely to cause Russia to look to the East as he would like. But if they help overcome some Western misconceptions about Russia's real possibilities, they nonetheless will have played a positive role.