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Putin Takes a Page from Sergei Witte’s Program for Siberian Development

Sept. 13, 2023, 2022 (EIRNS)—Speaking at the 8th Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, President Vladimir Putin made it crystal-clear that Russia was initiating an all-out thrust to develop the tremendous economic and natural resources existing in the vast Siberian territory. Putin began his plenary remarks, “one thing is clear, the Far East is Russia’s strategic priority for the entire 21st century, and we will stick to this.”

During the last couple of weeks, Putin has been in discussion with regional leaders in the Arctic region and the northern Arctic states, talking about the need to push for developing the cities of the north along the Northern Sea Corridor and farther east in Magadan, Andyr and Yakutia. Then he had discussions with those responsible for the more southern region of Siberia and the cities of Blagoveshchensk, Khabarovsk, and Birobidzhan, which are close to the Chinese border. The challenges of developing this region are formidable.

The Siberian Development was initially launched in the 1890s under Russian Finance Minister Sergei Witte, who took charge of the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the first link that now traverses all of Russia’s 11 time zones to the Pacific. In Putin’s program there will be a significant upgrade of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) which runs north of parallel to the Trans-Siberian line.

The original Trans-Siberian was built to unite the Russian Empire by rail, but also to reach the rich markets of the Asia-Pacific. Agreements with the Chinese Empire allowed Witte to build the last link of the extension of the line through Manchuria, the Chinese Eastern Railroad, bringing it into the midst of the Asian market. It was only when the Japanese, with the backing of their British supporters, succeeded in starting the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894, followed 10 years later by the Russo-Japanese War, that the Witte plan ended in shambles.

In Putin’s endeavor, as well, he has the full support of China, which will benefit tremendously from this development. The mineral and other resources of the vast Far East region will serve to fuel the continued growth of the entire Asia Pacific region. The emphasis that Putin has put on the cities’ infrastructure is to encourage people to migrate to the region, where the climate can often be difficult. As Witte had to do, the state must today subsidize some of the effort in order to assist people to move to the Far East. Witte offered free land for farming and likewise Putin is offering free land for setting up businesses. Improving the infrastructure of cities where people will live is of the utmost importance in encouraging the migration eastward. But the payoff will be great with Russia’s Far East providing much of the resources the rest of the region needs.

There will also be an emphasis on the development of industry and of science and technology, and the presence of the Vostochny Cosmodrome will serve as a catalyst for developments in education in aerospace and related fields.

The difference from the earlier phase is that the center of world production and trade is now firmly in the Asia Pacific region. Developing the east of Russia both enhances that general trend and benefits from it. China, aware of the importance of Russia’s moves, is also preparing to upgrade the economy of Heilongjiang in old Manchuria, which once was China’s industrial heartland. And it is by no accident that Xi Jinping traveled to Heilongjiang last week to put an emphasis on the importance of the region in this new geometry that’s developing.

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