Advice to Russia: Make Siberia Your Canada

03Nov11

It’s tempting to try to control everything, and to believe that empires last forever.  But that’s just not how it works.

I’m reading an article on the Russian Far East, and I am again reminded of the dramatic contrast between the emptiness of Siberia and the population and resource demands of China, next door.  It is not likely, and probably won’t be necessary, for the two nations to go to war over that imbalance.  Money and population may be capable, by themselves, of converting eastern Russia into a China-oriented realm.

One scenario would have Siberia become a de facto, if not de jure, extension or satellite of China.  In this picture, China gradually comes to wield increasing influence over the development and priorities of that part of Russia.  The situation here would be like that of some parts of the southwestern U.S., where many people see Mexico rather than white America as their point of reference.

A somewhat different scenario is that Siberia would come to resemble Russia’s answer to China:  a heavily Chinese place, in terms of culture, but with a clear awareness of its own difference from China.  In this scenario, the contrast is more like the difference between the U.S. and Canada.  They may look and sound like us, north of the border, but they have tended to have a rather different sociopolitical environment.  Indeed, on many issues, they have taken pride in not being like us.

It is not likely that ethnic Chinese in Siberia will tend to indulge deep nostalgia for Moscow and Old Russia.  At the same time, they may also appreciate an opportunity to avoid the worst parts of life in China.  It is not inconceivable, for example, that Chinese dissidents could one day view an escape to Siberia as the path to freedom.

Russia, itself, may not be able to deliver a political culture that would foster any such development.  But the people of Siberia themselves may be able to do so, particularly if they are helped in that direction.  In the best case, Russia could transform Siberia into a semiautonomous region that looks to Moscow for protection against absorption into China — a long-term friend with a special relationship, that is, that becomes in some ways an effective counterweight to China in the Far East.

I don’t know when the ideal time for such a move would be.  There’s probably not much danger that it will be done too soon; I’ve never heard anyone suggesting the idea, and it’s very unlikely to happen anytime soon.  Doing it too late could mean making a futile attempt to reshape an already developed political and economic climate.

It would be ironic, of course, if the notorious Siberia of Stalin’s gulag would one day become a haven for dissidents from anywhere or, possibly, everywhere.  But in some ways Siberia is the last great wilderness on this planet.  It could yet become a New World.

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