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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Russia Rents itself to China (with Option to Buy?)

As Vladimir Putin's polices fail utterly, Russia's population dwindles and Siberia becomes a desert, it is inevitable that China will take over Russia's Far East. But it is happening even more quickly than La Russophobe imagined, clearly showing that the Kremlin knows oil revenues will not float Russia's boat and cannot stave off the inevitable. First Russia sells part of Siberia as a nuclear dump, then it rents the rest to China, and the Russian people sit idly by and watch it happen, continuing to favor "President" Putin with nosebleed-high approval ratings. The Moscow Times' Yulia Latynina reports and comments:

The Federal Forestry Agency has said it is ready to rent out 1 million hectares of forest to China, and preliminary agreements have been reached with the Tyumen and Sverdlovsk regions on 49-year rental contracts. Russia has not undertaken anything on this scale since selling Alaska to the United States in 1867.

The national media have not covered the deal and there has been no discussion in the State Duma. But 49 years is two generations. Will there be any chance the tenants will leave when the deal expires? Ossetians have been living in Ingushetia's Prigorodny District since 1944. What would happen if we asked them to give it back to the Ingush?

Suppose 49 years from now Russia realizes there are no ethnic Russians living on those 1 million hectares. How would it ask the Chinese to leave? Given the Chinese people's diligence and sheer numbers and the country's ability to think in terms of centuries -- as opposed to the Kremlin's habit of thinking in dollars -- will there be a single Russian left?

Not long ago, Kosovo was Serbian territory. In fact, it was the very heart of Serbia and the site of the Battle of Kosovo of 1389 that is so central to Serbian identity. Kosovo is now demanding independence, based on the presence of an ethnic Albanian majority. How many decades will the Chinese need to claim a right to the Tyumen region and the Urals if they follow the model of Kosovo?

Renting out forests is not the only sign of increasing Russian-Chinese friendship. Others include the construction by the Chinese of a toll highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Given that toll roads are generally more about regulating traffic flows than covering construction costs, the construction of the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway can't be considered a commercial project. It is a project to build an 800-kilometer-long Chinatown.

Then there is the credit Rosneft received from China to help it purchase Yuganskneftegaz. The loan is tied to oil supplies and experts have put the cost at about $17 per barrel, plus a small current payment dependent on the price of oil. I'm not suggesting that the money was provided as a bribe. In fact, just the opposite: I am afraid the deal graphically demonstrates how much more effective Chinese officials are at looking out for the country's interests.

Let's not forget the Peace Mission 2005 joint military exercises with China that were held in Tsindao province. The scenario for the exercises involved terrorists seizing control of an island and included long-range Tu-22M3 and Tu-95MS bombers pounding the anti-aircraft installations and air bases of the terrorists' accomplices. The West said that the exercises were a rehearsal for capturing Taiwan and that Russia's strategic air capabilities are a threat to Taiwan's allies. Stalin and Marshal Georgy Zhukov would be turning in their graves at the thought of the Russian Air Force helping China seize Taiwan.

The Kremlin is cozying up to China to spite the United States. At first glance, this policy seems strange. However much the Kremlin dislikes the United States, Washington is not after Russian land or witnessing enormous emigration, and is certainly not interested in Russia falling apart and the appearance of, for example, a Chinese-Finnish border and a Caucasian caliphate.

The point is that everything depends on the goals involved. If we are afraid of the United States not as a threat to Russian territorial integrity, but as a country with an unpleasant habit of raising questions about human rights and official corruption, then getting close to China makes sense. Friendship with China is a club that can be used to brandish at the United States when Russia wants to.

But is it really worth turning Siberia into a potential Kosovo just to teach the United States a lesson?

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

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