Russian President Vladimir Putin has just hosted this year’s Eastern Economic Forum in the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok. The meeting was notably successful as China and Russia pledged to work towards breaking the all important $100 billion per annum trading threshold this year while welcoming the China-Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) free trading agreement which will take effect beginning in 2019. While all major parties at the forum reiterated their commitment to a Korean peace process which is inseparable from discussions regarding Korean economic integration, the summit was also notable for the Russian President and Japanese Prime Minister’s commitment to at long last formalise a peace treaty without any preconditions (aka without invoking the Kuril Islands dispute). Finally, Russia and ASEAN representatives reiterated their goals of expanding trade, technological and cultural exchange and long term security cooperation.
Unlike many large summits, one of the great achievements of the Eastern Economic Forum was that all the news to come out of Vladivostok was positive. Some news involved specific positive developments while some of the news to come out of the forum involved statements of more general but still positive long term goals as expressed by the representatives of multiple nations.
But while the annual forum is becoming increasingly important, the elephant in the room is that the forum’s location ought to become a focal point of Russia’s long term developmental and geopolitical strategy. Vladivostok is currently the largest Russian city in what Moscow terms its “far east”. Already, the language employed is rather grim as “far east” implies something remote or peripheral as opposed to a place that is vital to the state and central to the nation’s cultural characteristics. For example, just because most of the important institutions of US government are in Washington D.C., Virginia and New York, this does not mean that US leaders call California and neighbouring states America’s “far western region”. Instead, California and its neighbours are called the “west coast”, a far more inviting name than “far west”.
Because of this, Russia would have nothing to lose by re-branding its “far east” as the Russia Pacific Region or for external marketing purposes the Great Russian Pacific. Beyond this, Vladivostok must be systematically transformed from a de-facto regional capital into a permanent second capital city for the Russian Federation. At present, many Russians think of the north-western city of St. Petersburg as a pseudo second capital. This rationale is easy enough to apprehend as between 1712 and 1918, St. Petersburg was in fact Russia’s capital city. Furthermore, as a St. Petersburg native himself, President Vladimir Putin has pushed for more national institutions and annual summits to be held in the former Russian capital.
But while St. Petersburg represents Russia’s gateway to a historically and contemporarily hostile Europe, Vladivostok represents Russia’s gateway to several friendly countries including China and Korea while it looks likely that unlike Europe, Japan and Russia will move towards increasingly good relations as already the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Shinzō Abe is very friendly.
With a prospect of an economically integrated Korea being a highly likely development over the next decade, Russia has in its Pacific Region, a vast frontier with the most economically dynamic part of the world – north east Asia and the ASEAN block in south east Asia beyond. As China is unquestionably Russia’s closest and most important partner, there is no reason why Vladivostok cannot become the Russian version of Shanghai.
Not only should Russia vastly expand the presence of national governmental offices in Vladivostok but the State Duma should meet in Vladivostok for part of the year, thus serving to demonstrate that Russia is a Pacific power as much as it is an Arctic, Black Sea, Baltic and Caspian power. Furthermore, residents of Russia’s large western cities should be given highly substantial monetary and tax incentives to re-locate to cities of the Russia Pacific Region. Russia already has a programme whereby both Russians and foreigners will be offered free land in parts of Russia, including and especially in the Russia Pacific Region, that are presently underdeveloped if they cultivate the land. Similar schemes should be available as part of the expansion of urban Vladivostok with options for Chinese and Koreans to buy property being a key priority in helping to inject new foreign cash flow into the city.
Finally, cultural institutions must be built in Vladivostok that rival anything available in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Vladivostok ought to have symphony orchestras, ballet and opera companies, museums, pop music venues, scientific institutions, theatre and children’s centres that rival the cultural monuments in Russia’s current capital as well as those in foreign capitals.
One of the problems inherent in Russia’s vast size is that the timezone of Moscow is more readily matched towards the working hours of Europe and Africa than that of much of Asia. Because of this, all Foreign Ministry departments concerned with some of south Asia and all of north east and south east Asia should permanently move from Moscow to Vladivostok. This will not only make working hours for Foreign Ministry officials more convenient but will be a sign of both inwardly and outwardly recognisable good will, in so far as it would clearly demonstrate that Russia is embracing its north-east Asian characteristics as much as it embraces its western Eurasian side.
While politically and economically Russia is already looking east in many respects, far more must be done to solidify Russia as a true Eurasian power that prioritises its Asian partnerships above less fruitful ventures. Making an expanded and ever more modernised Vladivostok a second capital of the Russian Federation would help Russia to more rapidly adopt the eastward and southern looking geostrategic trajectory that will ultimately make Russia a more prosperous and strong state for all of its people.