Thirteen years ago, Russia pulled its troops out of the military town of Bezrechnaya, several hours’ drive from the country’s main border crossing into China. The abandoned buildings were then stripped to their foundations by jobless locals, some of whom lost their lives scavenging for the second-hand bricks that sell for less than a penny each.
The few inhabitants that remain today expect the village to be completely abandoned within a decade.
“It looks like the aftermath of a bombing raid,” said Evgeniya Arameeva, 38, who works in Bezrechnaya’s small shop. “People higher up probably don’t even know we are here.”
Bezrechnaya is a symbol of how a thawing relationship between Moscow and Beijing after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has led to the gradual demilitarization of a once tense area. Yet it is also a reminder of the demographic trends in the Sino-Russian border region, which extends for more than 4,184km from the eastern fringes of the Mongolian steppe to the Pacific Ocean. There are fewer than 5 million people in the five Russian regions facing China across the Amur and Argun rivers, compared with the more than 100 million people living in the three Chinese regions on the opposite banks.
For the Kremlin, this is both a problem and an opportunity. Russia has given multiple signals in recent months that it wants to shift its focus east and shore up state authority in the farthest reaches of the nation, seven time zones east of the capital. The designation of Vladivostok as the host city for last year’s APEC summit was supposed to be a catalyst for development.
In an echo of policies followed by both Tsarist and Soviet governments, several special far east agencies, including a new government ministry, were set up in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for a third term in May last year.
“In the 21st century, the vector of Russia’s development is to the east,” Putin told more than 1,000 politicians in the Kremlin during an annual address last month.
China replaced Germany as Russia’s most important commercial partner in 2010, and the total volume of trade between the two countries was likely to reach US$90 billion last year. The first Russia-China oil pipeline, pumping more than 1 million tonnes of crude a month, was opened in 2011.
Russia’s exports to China are principally raw materials, including timber, coal, electricity and metals. However, the scale of the cross-border trade falls short of the potential implied by the apparently perfect economic fit between China’s hunger for resources and Siberia’s great bounty.
Agreements have stalled over a reluctance to shoulder huge infrastructure costs and arguments over how profits will be shared. In the most high-profile case, Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom has been locked in negotiations over gas exports with the China National Petroleum Co for longer than a decade.
While China has gained visibly from its economic growth, Russia appears to be treading water.
At the Zabaikalsk-Manzhouli border crossing, through which passes 70 percent of Russia-China trade, the disparities are clear.
Twenty years ago, Zabaikalsk and Manzhouli — which face each other across the border marked by a few strips of barbed wire — were settlements of about 15,000 people. However, while Zabaikalsk remains a dusty border town, Manzhouli now has high-rise buildings, an indoor skiing facility, 3D movie theaters and a population approaching half a million. Russians flock to it for the shopping opportunities.