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
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
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.