Epilogue: Engaging with Post-Soviet Northern Eurasia

In a book titled Russia 2010, Yergin and Gustafson (1993) attempted to predict what the country would be like after 15 years of reforms. They envisioned four broad scenarios: (1) “Chaos” (dissolution and an all-out civil war); (2) “Two-Headed Eagle” (the restoration of an authoritarian state, albeit with a capitalist economy); (3) “Russian Bear” (the rise of anti-Western security or military forces, which would run the country along more socialist lines); and (4) “Chudo” (i.e., “[Economic] Miracle,” in which Russia would become a stable democracy and an increasingly powerful, competitive market economy that was able to export not only natural resources, but high-tech goods as well). Remarkably, many of these predictions have come true. At this writing in 2010, Russia seems to be somewhere between scenarios 2 and 4, with the arguably much worse alternatives (1 and 3) safely avoided. The worst economic times seem to be over. The economy is not growing as fast as expected, but 5–6% annual growth is still much better than what leading Western economies are experiencing nowadays. Russia and some other former Soviet Union (FSU) states are enjoying the windfall of high petroleum and natural gas prices. Politically, the security forces (mainly ex-KGB officers) do in effect rule the country, but they are not as isolationist or nationalist as could be feared. In fact, it is obvious that Russia's current leadership (the Putin–Medvedev team) is very well tuned in to the greater world. Russia is a full participant in the Group of Eight (G8), is working in cooperation with the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) on many issues, is a member of the Council of Europe, takes part in World Trade Organization talks, and remains committed to participation in all other key economic and political global initiatives as a partner of all major world powers. Russia does favor a multipolar world order and, like the United States, is wary of the rise of China. It also does not like to play “second fiddle” to the United States, which is natural for a country of its size and history. In fact, in the past few years Russia has been more and more assertive of its interests not only in other FSU regions (Central Asia or the Caucasus), but increasingly in other parts of the world (Africa, the Middle East, or even Latin America). It also sometimes does disagree with the U.S. or other NATO allies on key issues.

Although the real Russia 2010 does not have independent TV networks or elected regional governors any more, it still remains a multiparty democracy. Its citizens are allowed to read and watch diverse media sources, surf the Internet without censorship, and travel around the world. Its economy is more privatized than those of some European countries, and its companies are not only oil and gas giants, but increasingly competitive small businesses providing consumer goods and some high-tech products that are much needed at home. In short, Russia 2010 is a much better place to be than Russia 1993.

Many aspects of the preceding description apply to other FSU republics. In some (the Baltics), the transition to Western-style democracies and economies is virtually complete, although their nationalistic agendas and overexposure to global financial flows make these countries vulnerable. Other countries range from economically developed but politically oppressive Belarus to politically developed but economically precarious Ukraine and Georgia, with Kazakhstan somewhere in the middle. Although it is impossible to predict the future, I would like to propose some observations on likely developments for Russia and the rest of post-Soviet Northern Eurasia here. First I outline the most likely trajectories for Russia and the other countries; I then provide some ideas about how you, the reader of this book, may personally wish to engage with the region.

Russia 2020

In less than 10 years, Russia is likely to emerge as one of the top five economies in the world—bigger than Germany or France, and just a little smaller than Japan by nominal gross domestic product (GDP). It is already considered a pivotal emerging economy, along with the other three so-called BRIC countries (China, India, and Brazil). Russia will continue to dominate Northern Eurasia; it is likely to become an increasingly important transportation corridor between Europe and Asia, capitalizing on its vast railroads and the increasingly ice free Arctic Ocean; and it almost certainly will remain one of only two countries on earth able to challenge the United States militarily (the other one, of course, will be China).

More importantly, Russia is likely to become more democratic. If the past is any indication of the future, periods when there is a relative lack of democracy are replaced with periods when there is a drive for more. Good models for authoritarian Russia to follow might be Chile and South Korea. Although much smaller, both emerged as great success stories economically and politically after decades of autocratic military governments. Compared to both, Russia actually has stronger and older traditions of democratic rule and economic prosperity. Russia also continues to have a well-educated population, and will be able to tap into the large diaspora of professionals of Russian descent around the world.

Russia's other strengths, of course, include its plentiful natural resources. These will continue to play an important role, especially its oil, gas, timber, and metals. The size of the land, especially the arable farmland that is at present underutilized, will become an increasingly important asset in the crowded and warmer future world. Russia has an untapped wealth of alternative energy sources. It also has substantial, clean freshwater reserves, including the Siberian rivers, mountain runoff, polar ice caps, and Lake Baikal. Water is emerging as the most critical resource of the 21th century and is likely to become even more important in global affairs by 2020 than petroleum is today. If the amount of climate change that is predicted even in cautious global-warming scenarios takes place, Russia is poised to benefit more than most other countries on earth.

A big weakness of Russia that will become more apparent by 2020 is its inability to wean itself off the petroleum habit, just as its main deposits are beginning to be depleted. Also, Russia's tremendous size and still cold climate will continue to be impediments to development, especially in the most remote regions of the north and in the Far East. Some other major threats are presented by the continued decrease of its population, the rising HIV/AIDS rates, poor air and water quality in the major cities, and the depopulation of large swaths of its agricultural countryside.

In addition, Russia must make peace with its southern and eastern neighbors, while at the same time reducing the size of its military and abolishing the obsolete army draft system. It also must reduce its prison population without resorting to executions or release of hardened criminals into its already disorderly cities. Yet another major challenge is pervasive corruption at all levels of its government, especially in the police. Finally, Russia must solve problems in the Caucasus and avoid farther confrontations with either the United States or China. In fact, a strong Russia is vital for enduring global peace, because it is one of very few global players able to be a neutral third party to any developing confrontation between China and the United States.

Those of you who will travel to Moscow in 2020 will still find the beautiful old Kremlin and the cobblestone streets of downtown Moscow charmingly intact. You will also have a chance to board a high-speed bullet train ride to St. Petersburg (2? hours); observe the city from the top of the highest skyscraper in Europe at 500 m; and eat in the newest all-organic Mama Russia bistro featuring locally grown, carbon-neutral, genetically unmodified, healthy food. Traveling on a bicycle outside the city, you will see wind turbines on the western hills of Istra district and will be able to paraglide in the “Moscow Switzerland” park nearby. Ethnically, the country will retain a Russian majority, but its share will drop to about 75% from its present 80%. The population will probably be smaller than today (about 130 million), but perhaps you will see families with two or three children, rather than only one, strolling in parks. Half of all Russians will speak English when you meet them (only 10% do today). If you are a European or an American, you may not need a visa to enter Russia in 2020, unlike now. If you are a citizen of Kazakhstan or Ukraine, you will be able to travel from your own country to Russia with much greater speed and ease than today; you will not even need to show your passport, and certainly will not be harassed by grim border guards.

One thing that is almost certain to change is that travelers to Russia in 2020 will not be content just to see Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Golden Ring. There will be hundreds of other opportunities for travel or work in most parts of the country. The most successful regions in the new Russia will no longer be just the oil- and gas-rich provinces, but also the revitalized farming belt, the Black Sea resorts, and central Siberia (including the Altay and the Sayan Mountains). Also thriving will be the Russian Far East, the gateway to the Pacific. Within the FSU, Belarus will have joined Russia, in a full union (the two will have effectively become one country again); Kazakhstan and Ukraine will have free-trade agreements and an open-border policy (similar to what the United States and Canada have today); and almost all other FSU republics will be actively engaged with Russia in many economic projects. The only country that will remain isolated is Georgia, mired in two regional conflicts and unable to fix its internal economic problems on its own, but still unable to join either the Russian sphere of influence or the European Union (EU).

Although the account above may seem a bit too optimistic, I have many reasons to believe it. Geographic research proves that a country's success depends on multiple factors, and Russia seems to have just the right mix of them at the moment to help the country lift itself up and move forward at an unprecedented rate. However, political instability at home, in Asia, or in the Middle East; growing energy costs; and the demographic situation may tip the odds against a prosperous and stable Russia. What about the other Eurasian states?

Future Europeans?

Besides the Baltics, which have already joined the EU and NATO, Ukraine and Georgia are two serious candidates for NATO membership. Moldova may be able to join the EU and/or NATO in 15–20 years, perhaps merging with Romania in the process. However, by 2020 the world may have already moved past NATO. For example, if the U.S. economy continues to deteriorate between 2010 and 2012 under its internal and external debt (which seems possible at this writing), the Europeans will have to build their own defense system to replace the obsolete, U.S.-dominated NATO framework. Also, pragmatically speaking, it is unclear how well the EU itself will fare in the event of a global economic crisis caused by the oil peak, global warming, an emerging flu pandemic, major terrorist attacks, or any other factor(s). The EU is very attractive at the moment because it is prosperous and generous, but this may not remain forever the case.

Admission of Turkey into the EU by 2015, which is likely, may change the internal balance of that organization to such an extent that admission of Ukraine or Georgia may become either certain or impossible. The EU countries' indigenous populations are already shrinking and are quickly being replaced by people of very different ethnic and/or cultural backgrounds, with different aspirations and traditions. Their Europe may not be as welcoming to the new members as the current one. Although there is no question in my mind that the “old Europe” will still be around in 2020, it may not be as generous or prosperous as it is today, and thus may well be less inviting to new members.

Are there other countries within the FSU that may become more deeply engaged with Europe in the future? Belarus certainly can and should, provided that its leadership changes. Russia itself can and probably will pursue more pro-European (and perhaps more anti-American) economic policies, with its energy resources. After all, Moscow is a lot closer to Berlin than to Washington, D.C. Armenia is certainly a nation that may very well be admitted, if not to the EU, then perhaps to some strategic economic alliance with the European countries. Culturally, it is the most European of all FSU states in the Caucasus or Central Asia.

The most critical question is this: What will Ukraine do? If Russia is excluded, it is the biggest country in Europe by size and the fifth biggest by population. Ideally, it should find itself in the position of becoming an EU member or associate member while maintaining pragmatic, friendly relations with Russia. The latter is unlikely, however, if Ukraine actively pursues NATO membership. Ukraine, however, is simply too big and too important for the world to allow it to fail. Therefore, it is likely that all major world players will continue to engage with it at various levels, providing necessary political and economic assistance. One hopes that its leadership and its people will be able to figure out the best course for the nation, regardless of pressures from other places.

The Central Asian States

The Central Asian economies at the moment are rapidly developing, which is encouraging. However, they are skewed too sharply toward production of only a handful of commodities (oil in Kazakhstan, cotton in Uzbekistan, gold in Kyrgyzstan, etc.), which is not sustainable in the long run. The biggest opportunities seem to be in developing new resources that are yet untapped, increasing education and health services, and encouraging a new generation of world-savvy political leaders. Of all the republics, Kazakhstan seems to be furthest along in these respects; however, even there the degree of provincialism is quite obvious. The Central Asian countries are among the least engaged players in the new global economy—only marginally better than many African states, and substantially behind most of Asia or Latin America—and are unlikely to change soon.

Some of the biggest uncertainties for the region lie in the ambivalent U.S. and Russian policies toward the region's development, as well as the increasingly powerful interests of China, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia intersecting in the region. If Iran, for example, wants to encourage Shiite traditions in Tajikistan, the Saudis may prefer to support Sunni movements there. Proximity to Afghanistan does not make any of these countries very safe, and the presence of militant Islamist movements in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan provides an extra layer of complexity in those countries. Nevertheless, the five “-stans” (and Azerbaijan as well) are likely to develop fairly rapidly in the next 5–10 years and will be increasingly visible and accessible from outside the region.

Engaging with the FSU Yourself

It is my sincere hope that after reading this book, you will want to become more engaged with post-Soviet Northern Eurasia. I have taken students on several class trips there and am always amazed at how much joy they experience in their first direct encounters with Moscow, Siberia, or other corners of this vast territory. Remember that you do not need to be a professional geographer to do geography. Even the simple act of taking a map out and looking at it engages you somewhat with a place; choosing to read a first-hand account of travels in that place will involve you farther. And, of course, you will become even more engaged if you travel through the area, noticing similarities and differences in the physical and cultural landscapes on the way. Below I provide a few concrete ideas about how you personally may experience the FSU:

  • Read as much as you can about the countries of Northern Eurasia. The Further Reading section at the end of each chapter of this book is a good place to start.
  • Use online tools (e.g., Google Earth, the CIA World Factbook, and country-specific Websites) to broaden your knowledge of specific places.
  • Watch movies made in the Soviet Union or the FSU republics.
  • Study the Russian language, and perhaps another language from the FSU. (My personal choice would be to try any of the many Turkic languages—e.g., Azeri or Kazakh.)
  • Meet immigrants from the FSU in the city where you live or at school where you study. Most American colleges, for example, have Russian-language programs with associated student organizations. Most big cities in North America or Europe have Russian and Ukrainian groceries, restaurants, and bookstores.
  • Become a host family for a high school or college exchange student from Northern Eurasia.
  • Sign up for a class that goes on a short study abroad tour of Russia or any other FSU republic.
  • Study abroad for a semester or more in any of the many universities in the FSU offering classes to foreigners.
  • Join the Peace Corps and live for some time in any of the FSU republics where the Peace Corps is active.
  • Travel to any FSU nation as part of a church group or environmental group.
  • Buy a commercial tour package, or, better yet, travel on your own in any of the FSU republics. Travel guides will explain how to do this, even on a small budget.
  • Consider finding a job in any of the emerging markets of Northern Eurasia. If you know one of the languages and have a good education, you will be very welcome in many positions. You can work for a Western or domestic company, for your government, or even as a freelance translator or tutor.
  • Make friends with the locals while you are there. The people of Northern Eurasia are very friendly, although in many places they are not as used to seeing foreigners as in parts of Latin America or Western Europe. Some people I know have made lifelong friends over there, and a few have even found their future spouses.

Above all, no matter what you do, remember that the FSU is waiting for you to explore it. Best wishes to you, and Do Svidaniya!