Chinese police at a border crossing with Russia
Many foreign policy analysts in America and around the world perceive a growing alliance between Russia and China to counter U.S. influence. By looking at the diplomatic statements of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the increasing amount of trade and joint military exercises between Russia and China, it is easy for an American to come to this conclusion. But this simplistic analysis overlooks the sentiments of many Russian academics and ordinary citizens who fear the superpower rising on Russia's doorstep.
Today Johnson's Russia List features two stories addressing these fears. The first story reports the results of a survey conducted by the All Russian Public Opinion Poll Center. According to the polling data, 25% of Russians fear some loss of national territory due to ethnic separatism. A significant percentage of those polled also feared national extinction due to demographic collapse. Russian government demographers estimate that Russia is suffering the net loss of 700,000 citizens a year due to plummeting birth rates.
The second story comes from the BBC's world media monitoring service, and records a candid discussion on Echo Moskvy Radio about the shifting balance of power between Russia and China. While one of the panelists declared that China represents an "objective threat" to Russia, others insisted that it is only Russian weakness contrasted with Chinese dynamism that creates this perception, and that Russia should view the rise of China as a golden opportunity.
Click on the extended post to read the full summary.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao
Radio Ekho Moskvy talk show considers threats to Russian statehood
Source: Ekho Moskvy radio, Moscow, in Russian 1805 gmt 3 Dec 06
A recent work by the eminent German military historian, Peter Scholl Latur, has suggested that Russia may cease to exist as a political entity by the end of the 21st century. This was the starting point for a discussion on the threats to the integrity of the Russian state on Russian Ekho Moskvy radio's political talk show "Andrey Cherkizov's kitchen" on 3 December 2006. The panellists considered, among other things, the possible dangers posed by China and Muslim separatism to Russia as well as the country's role in the CIS.
China - the "most terrible threat"
Cherkizov said that in the eyes of many respected experts China is the "most terrible threat" to Russia, overshadowing the dangers posed by extreme Islam and the situation in Chechnya. "The people who put forward this thesis are trying to create in themselves and those around them a certain wariness towards China," Cherkizov noted.
Aleksey Voskresenskiy, a professor of politics at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said that it is not necessary to see China's burgeoning economy as a threat. "A neighbour with such dynamic economic growth certainly represents a challenge, but it is also an opportunity. Russia finds itself next to a powerful economy with which it must and can try to establish a shared economic life," Voskresenskiy said.
A different viewpoint came from Aleksandr Khromchikhin of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis. Khromchikhin said that China certainly represents an "objective threat" because of the demographic and resource imbalances between the two countries. "Objectively, they need resources and territory. And stretching out before them is the enormous and almost empty Far East, which is awash with resources and has virtually no people," Khromchikhin explained. He added that the Chinese may also feel they have certain historical claims to these territories, though fears on this account may have been allayed by the recent signing of a border agreement between Moscow and Beijing.
Cherkizov himself chipped in at this point with his own thesis that Russia should not fear China but strive to establish "civilized relations with it that would give China the opportunity to deal with its population of 1.3bn people". However, the host added, Russia needs to make sure that any such arrangement brings benefits to both sides.
The final member of the panel was Geydar Dzhamal, the chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia and a Sinologist. Dzhamal was of the opinion that as long as Russia exists as a single entity, even a weak one, then China will not threaten its integrity. It would only be in a situati on where the central authority in Russia had lost control that China might show an interest in Siberia and the Far East, he said. Even then, Dzhamal continued, it is not clear to what extent China would be able to take advantage of fragmentation in Russia. It would be constrained both by its own acute, internal social problems and its rivalries with Japan and India, he explained.
Later in the discussion, Khromchikhin said it would be very good if it were possible to invite Chinese people into Russia and have them become Russian. Cherkizov countered that it was not necessary for them to become Russian. They could stay Chinese as long as they abided by the law of the state to which they have come, he stressed.
Persecution of Muslim youth
Another part of the programme considered the relationship between separatism and Islam in Russia. Cherkizov asked Dzhamal if it was possible that predominantly Muslim republics in the Volga region - Tatarstan and Bashkortostan - could break away from the rest of Russia.
Dzhamal responded by saying that a "real witch-hunt" was being conducted against Muslims in these Volga republics, but also in other Russian regions, especially in the North Caucasus republics of Kabarda-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia.
He went on to say that it was a mistake for Moscow to regard all political movements in these areas as separatist ones. For example, Dzhamal continued, the uprising in Nalchik was directed against the local corrupt elite and was an appeal to Moscow to intervene to put things right. "The young people in these regions want modernization, and in return they are being accused of Wahhabism, and persecuted and thrown in jail," Dzhamal said. He added that he believed that this situation was being deliberately exacerbated by the authorities and could blow up in their faces if the central authority was thrown into crisis.
Russia losing leadership of CIS
The final part of the discussion turned to the effectiveness of Russian government and policy both within the country and in relation to its neighbours.
Khromchikhin said that Russia lacks a proper "national authority". "In my opinion, the Russian state lacks a proper sense of national identity. We simply have Gazprom, the veto at the UN Security Council and a strategic nuclear potential," he observed.
Cherkizov chimed in by saying that the authorities were ineffective in relation both to their own country and the CIS.
Khromchikhin agreed, adding that Moscow was losing the initiative on post-Soviet territory. "Kazakhstan is effectively becoming the leader of the CIS. [President] Nazarbayev is seizing the helm because he feels he has the power and opportunity to do so, because he is a fairly strong leader. He has a clear strategy for the development of his country, and we have nothing like this. We are simply driving everyone away from us," he said.
Voskresenskiy saw the problem in more general terms. "We are completely unable to find a model to transform the space around Russia," he remarked. He added that Russia was also suffering from its inability to modernize as quickly as the world around it. As a result, it lacks confidence in relation to both internal and external affairs, the professor said.
Cherkizov wound up the hour-long discussion by saying that the greatest threat to Russia lay in the consequences of "the misguided foreign and domestic policies" of its authorities.
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