Russia’s Potential

At the end of World War I, distinguished British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder published a volume entitled Democratic Ideals and Reality. In it, he proposed a “Heartland Theory.” He contended that the country that controlled the “world island” (Eurasian continent) could control the world. He stated: “Who rules eastern Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island. Who rules the World Island commands the world.” Mackinder's Heartland includes all of Russia, most of the CIS, portions of Mongolia and north China, and the Middle East. This area is large and well supplied with raw materials. However, the population of the Heartland, according to Mackinder, would never be numerous in comparison to the other regions of the world.

Just as Mackinder's theory implied, Russia has great potential as a country. The CIS is also an excellent framework for economic linkage and market accessibility. In today's world, anything beyond a subsistence life requires trade and communications. As a result, the future of the Russian Federation and the CIS will be determined by geopolitics, geoeconomics, and the Russian Federation's internal reforms.

As part of those reforms, the Russian government has begun to create the means to secure funds to meet the nation's budget needs. Issues of national survival and political stability have forced government leaders to make hard decisions. New laws have been passed and a national educational campaign to increase state revenues is having some success. Even so, the greatest changes in Russia and the most significant improvements in the nation's self-respect have been the results of geopolitics and geoeconomics.

Politically marginalized for a decade,Russia regained international importance after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President Bush's decision to oust the government in Afghanistan that supported international terrorism changed American attitudes toward Russia. The United States needed a viable, supportive, democratic, capitalist ally in Asia. Russia was the logical choice, for reasons that included aspects of Mackinder's Heartland Theory. Location is the prime issue in geography. The physical position of a country at a time of international crisis is important in political policy and in economic orientation. Lord George Curzon, a British statesman, remarked that, in World War I, the Allies “floated to victory on a sea of oil.”

George Cressey, a noted regional geographer, stated that the Allies “flew to victory on a cloud of gasoline” in World War II. The economies of the United States and western Europe are based heavily upon oil and natural gas, which are inexpensive energy sources. The Russian Federation and the nations of the central Asian and Caucasus regions are exceptionally rich in these resources.Vast coalfields and large deposits of oil and natural gas lay waiting to be developed here. Russia and the CIS also have another great asset—their people—whose qualities are more important than their numbers. Those who live in Russia are well educated, literate, hardworking, and very patriotic. They excel in recognizing the assets and the liabilities of the Heartland area.

Russia's future geography will be determined in part by international politics and in part by international economics. Even more, however, the future will be decided by the peoples of Russia. Democracy, benevolent capitalism, personal freedoms, and prosperity must yet be fully earned, but the prospects for the Russian Federation are good. After so many years of economic hardship, ordinary Russians hope to begin seeing the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” Although many still live in poverty, especially in the countryside, Russia's peoples can expect an increase in their quality of life. On the bumpy road to prosperity, some major obstacles must be overcome.

Among the problems is Russian xenophobia, or fear of strangers. This is understandable considering the number of times Russia has been attacked from every direction. Mongols came from the east, French and Germans from the west, Turks from the south, just to name a few. The fear of strangers is deeply entrenched among most ethnic Russians and it affects the way society in general operates. This cultural behavior is counterproductive in the age of globalization when worldwide cultural boundaries are being eliminated. Complicated regulations limit travel to, from, and within the country and foreign workers are discouraged. Laws create barriers against international companies that are willing to invest in Russia's future.

Many Russians believe that the process of globalization leads to loss of sovereignty, rather than providing benefits to the people. We can conclude, nevertheless, that incoming generations of young Russians will overcome the burden of the past. They will not remember the cold war and other turbulent times. Instead, their popular-culture-oriented lifestyle will make them citizens of the world, therefore fundamentally changing Russian culture.

This trend is already obvious in large urban areas such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. These cities are directly impacted by global changes. The countryside, on the other hand, will require more time to experience a cultural transformation and become integrated into the modernization process. Country folk everywhere tend to be suspicious of changes that may affect the existing way of life, especially demographic changes such as an increase in immigrant populations. Rural Russians are not an exception. Elsewhere in this book, Russia's demographic problem of declining numbers has been spotlighted.

Somehow, this issue must be addressed. Without an adequate number of people to enter the labor force, the country faces a huge economic challenge.At a time when many economic indicators are showing rapid increase, that could be enormously counterproductive. The most obvious solution to the problem is one that many Russians fear—to open the country's doors to immigrants searching for a better life outside of their homelands. It is highly unlikely that existing birthrates among Russians will change in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the country has little choice but to encourage immigration.

If there is a term that defines Russia's future, it would be cooperation. Without cooperation, Russia will stagnate. Russia must become much better integrated into the global economy, which can occur through participation in the World Trade Organization. Political cooperation will stabilize internal issues and expand connections with neighboring countries and worldwide. This in turn will help further improvements in the social sphere, especially the quality of life among ordinary people.

Economic prosperity and the existence of democratic institutions will minimize ethnic conflicts. Through the process of interaction, Russians will realize that cooperation, rather than isolation, generates positive results. Nothing, however, happens overnight and both patience and discipline will be required. If, as a unified outward-looking people, Russians can successfully accomplish this process of cultural change, the country can be one of the world's leaders within a matter of decades.