— Sergei Alexandrovich, it has become customary to make statements about the “pivot to the East” at the Vladivostok forum. Why can’t we just do it?
— It is a good occasion, indeed. Over the past three years it has turned from mainly a domestic event into a huge, multi-factor and strategic forum that transcends regional boundaries. The discussions cover not only the economy but also politics. The current round of the “pivot” was conceived ten years ago but started in earnest only in 2012-2013. As for why we can’t make the turn, we have actually made it! The entire world has made it, with the center of global economic activities shifting palpably to East Asia. The economic growth rate in the Russian Far East is double the national average. Dozens of new enterprises are under construction. There are noticeable changes in the mentality of the power elite who no longer view Russia as the European periphery prepared to pay for the permission to get closer to the “center.”
— And how do the elite view it now?
— As the center of rising “Greater Eurasia.” This is a major shift and there is no stopping it. But, as always, it is taking place while we have no clear idea where we are turning and why. During Peter the Great’s reign Russia barely understood Europeans and Europe in general, too, but vigorously elbowed its way into that “club.” The same happened in the 1980s and the 1990s. The results of the latest push are quite unimpressive, to say the least. We are now moving towards Asia in pretty much the same manner—blindly. Russia desperately needs not even hundreds or thousands but tens of thousands of orientalists. It takes time to train such an army of people, but we are not even using what we have—the knowledge and experience of the people living in the Far East who have long established contacts with their Asian neighbors, who know and understand them. It is the human, cultural, and educational aspects of the pivot that we explore in our sixth Valdai report from the “Towards the Great Ocean” series to be presented at the EEF-2018.
— And what is it that keeps the authorities from stopping being lazy and becoming inquisitive?
— The resistance from domestic elites. There are different reasons for it. Some are not prepared to accept the obvious that the “Westernizer” today is a thing of the past and that those looking forward, into the future, must show interest in the East. Many worry about their investments made in the West over the past twenty years. We have developed strong comprador sentiments. Both groups fail to see that they have hopelessly fallen behind, and that the economic and financial center of the world has moved from the West to the East. I myself was a Eurocentrist some fifteen or twenty years ago until I figured out where the world was heading and what our country was like.
— So you think that the Western path has come to an end for Russia?
— We have received almost everything we could and needed. This is only one of the theses in our report—over the long period ushered in by Peter the Great (from the 17th century to the end of the 20th century) we obtained technologies and military organization, and created high culture by fusing our own and European cultures together. Even the fact that Russia became a great power is without a doubt the result of its “crusade to the West,” for it is the West where we got “infected” with the idea of great powerness. But we had used up their treasure trove by the beginning of the current century. Now Russia can and should cooperate with Europe, but it can no longer be the prime source of development for us. The only exception is environmental regulation where “discoveries” are still possible; maybe some elements of municipal democracy and self-government as well. As for all the rest the West has, either we already have it or it is no longer something we can grab because we are simply unable to master it. Russia is genetically an authoritative country. This must be calmly accepted and used as a competitive advantage. Another factor that pushes us towards the pivot is that Europe is stagnating, locked in a complex crisis, and not really capable of much, while Asia is growing rapidly, due in no small part to military “cover” from Russia.
— And who exactly gets that cover?
— This is just a figure of speech. Not all in Russia, or outside it for that matter, realize that our country actually midwifed Asia’s rise. The Soviet Union, and then modern Russia, deprived the West of its nearly 500-year-long military supremacy upon which it built its economic, political and cultural dominance in the world, and particularly in the East. Threatening a big war has become prohibitively dangerous. This has broadened the choice for dozens of countries.
Russia has recently won in Syria; it is mediating between Turkey and Iraq, India and China, and acting as a go-between in a number of other conflicts in Asia. So we can offer not only resources and transfer possibilities to other countries in the region, but we can also be the biggest provider of security.
— If history teaches anything, it surely says that Russia’s main trouble came from the East and the Mongols were the only ones who ever conquered the country, while all threats from the West, even the biggest ones, were repelled…
— The Mongol Yoke was a kind of historical vaccination which built the national character and political tradition. I think those two and a half centuries of semi-dependence explain why Russia strives for sovereignty so fiercely today. Perhaps this is the reason why we were so successful in defeating all European invaders. Unfortunately, the West did not timely understand, or did not want to understand, our genetic striving for sovereignty and the freedom of choice. It made a strategic mistake in the early 1990s by failing to integrate Russia, which at that time was ready to join “the European team,” as a sovereign part. If the West had agreed to that, the world would be different now. The collective West would not have lost, probably for good, its military supremacy—the foundation of its power in the past. The failure of Russia’s latest “dash to Europe” can partly be blamed on the collective West’s greed and stupidity as it expanded its alliances—the area of direct control—and started to impose its modern values, which most Russians cannot accept or do not find useful to accept. Partly, it is our own fault as we entertained illusions, were ignorant and did not know where we were going. The East has a different approach—it has no political or cultural mission to carry out.
Western pragmatism has long become a cliché, but in reality this approach is more characteristic of the East.
It is less influenced by dogmas and, strange as it may seem, it is much more liberal towards its partners’ views. People in Asia are much less inclined to use sanctions for political purposes. The West, on the contrary, uses sanctions more and more often not only against Russia. It has lost the ability to dictate its will by force and resorts to sanctions instead.
— Are you not idealizing the East?
— I am just playing it safe. In fact, the world is changing too fast. I may write another report in some ten years from now, if I am still alive. I cannot name its topic yet because I do not want to be wrong, for chances are, indeed, quite high. But one thing is certain—the world will have changed by that time again. I am almost convinced that there will be two major centers of power in the world by then—“Greater America” and “Greater Eurasia.” Russia will not be able to join the former for a number of reasons, and trying to do so would be senseless. It would only waste time. But it should maneuver. That leaves us no other option but finding our place in “Greater Eurasia,” with China undoubtedly being its center.
— But one can make the wrong bet, especially if it is a forced one...
— No, it is not a forced one. The pivot was first conceived when relations with the West looked quite decent. It was Peter the Great who put virtually everything on the European path. But there are no illusions left today: Russia is not Asia, nor is it Europe. Russia is a country with largely European high culture and economy, but partly with Asian mentality and Asian attitude towards the authorities. It is a rather odd and original mixture of European, Byzantine, and Asian civilizations. Today’s Russia must not under any circumstances place its bets on any one center but should instead diversify its risks and reap all the benefits. So when I say “the pivot to the East,” I do not mean that we should turn our back on the West. No one says that we should give up the ties established centuries ago, even if they are partly blocked today. We shall wait for Europe to overcome its crisis and become ripe for a new Eastern, actually Eurasian policy. But waiting does not mean standing still. We should move forward in the only available direction today—to the East. However this is not a forced movement; rather it is a trip back home, towards one’s own unique Eurasian nature. But it is seriously complicated by internal problems, the main of which is the poor knowledge of the Orient. Moreover, many intellectuals are ashamed of admitting to being partly Asian deep within. It is time we stopped feeling ashamed of the fact that Russia is as much an heir to Genghis Khan’s empire as China is, which he also conquered and where his successors ruled for centuries. This is our genetic and historical code, and we should no longer feel embarrassed about being historically stuck with an authoritative system of government rather than with liberal democracy. If we were not authoritative and centralized, we would not be here today within our present borders. But embarrassment also comes from not knowing …
— Not knowing what?
— The “Asian part” of Russian history in the first place. School hammers the European aspects of Russia’s development into children’s heads but pays too little attention to our ancestors’ movement to the East. But there is a lot to tell there, not only about Yermak, but also about “gold-boiling Mangazeya,” the 16th century Russian version of El Dorado. Only a few have heard about Russia’s 40-year war with the Manchu Empire (Qing Dynasty) and some of its brilliant episodes like the Siege of Albazin in 1686. The Russian troops were led by a Russified German, Afanasii Beiton, who had been selected by the Cossacks to be their ataman. There is also a story that could make a novel. It is about the first reception of the Russian envoy by the Chinese emperor. The envoy, originally from Holstein, was known in Moscow as Jelizari Izbrant. It was he who drew the first map of Siberia. We have almost forgotten most of the events, names and dates in Russia’s 500-year-long history. And probably only a handful of people remember Sergei Vitte who inspired the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The country would probably not have been able to keep Siberia without his foresight and administrative talent. Needless to say, Siberia saved us during the last horrible war. And yet, Siberia, from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, is still “a zone of historical silence.” But how can one feel proud of something he does not know? The situation needs to be changed immediately, because our children and grandchildren will live in a world where Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean dynasties will be as prominent as the Habsburgs, Bourbons or Romanovs were in the past. For the “pivot to the East” to succeed, we should invest much more in education to train orientalists.
— What else will be needed?
— Until we get enough such experts we should engage most actively with representatives of Far Eastern regions who have the experience of communicating with our neighbors, work with our communities in Oriental countries, and attract specialists from Asia. We should create “Oriental clubs” that would bring together Russia’s eastern and central elites and connect them with Asian elites. We need to increase dramatically the number of personal ties in Asia where they have always been valued much more than laws or contracts. What is needed most of all for the development of our Far Eastern region, with a focus on entering the Asian markets, is the creation of logistics centers. This may be particularly beneficial in the medium term when confrontation between the United States and China in the Asia Pacific region comes to a head. Beijing is slowly giving up oceanic transportation routes in favor of surface ones which run, among others, across Russia (or across Kazakhstan and Russia). Another advantage is tremendous reserves of fresh water and energy. Instead of developing machine-building, which was so much talked about in the previous years and which would be a mistake, we should offer our Oriental partners what they might be interested in, specifically raw materials and derivative products, as well as water-intensive products. The whole of Asia is experiencing a shortage of water. We can actually go further. Who says trading in computer chips is more profitable than selling highly processed agricultural products or hosting Big Data storage facilities? Because of the cold climate, their storage would be much less expensive here than in the rest of Asia. As a matter of fact, the first such facility has already been built in Siberia. Businesses operating in the region should be given maximum preferences and freedom: Siberia developed rapidly only when it was a free economy. After all, the European part of Russia is in debt to Siberia and the Far East for having left them out in the cold in the 1990s.
— What about the settlement of these territories?
— It is about time to dispel this myth too. True, a lot of people have left Siberia and the Far East, but are those remaining not enough to develop them? Just imagine that the government has sent several million people to the region. How will this correct the imbalance with China where more than a billion people live? It seems we do not really know if the available human resources would be enough for the development of those territories, but sending people over there en masse would most likely be a mistake. This certainly does not include necessary specialists in short supply or those who are eager to take part in a major project the country needs so much. Let us calculate and discuss how many people and what kind of policy are needed so that Russia would act as a civilizational, not only transportation or logistic, bridge between Europe and Asia. What kind of policy is needed to be sure of its security?
— Is it not too late yet? The West has been managing without our “bridge” for centuries.
— Either we hop on the train or stay behind on the platform. Europe and the United States have already gotten their share: the use of cheap Asian labor allowed the Americans and Europeans to sustain their economic growth. There is a concrete advantage in moving towards Asia: the cultural openness of Russian people who have shaken off ideological dogmas.
— Will we not be taken off the train?
— They are trying, for example, by publishing dozens of articles, which are reprinted here, claiming that there is no need or possibility for Russia to go eastward. The West clearly dislikes the fact that Russia has refused to be its periphery and changed the balance of power dramatically by heading eastward. It has given up the role of pupil, so to speak, who is willing to pay for the lessons. Well, let our former teachers try to talk with us on equal terms. Let them join in the efforts to build a big Eurasian partnership. The European Union will have to do it sooner or later. Otherwise, it will not be able to get out of its current stagnation. As a matter of fact, Asia would like Europe to come its way, but not how it did centuries ago—not as a master but as an equal. China is making its way into Europe as it wants to build a common One Belt One Road space. Our interests are identical because we want the same. Although about a decade late, Russia should waste no time in turning towards Asia, while at the same time being careful not to sever its European ties and roots, for they are indeed our inalienable part.