The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has already changed both foreign and internal relations all over the world, and the Russian Far East with its long Russo-Chinese border area is no exception.
Russia as well as China will emerge from the crisis caused by the coronavirus somewhat differently in various aspects. One of the most important aspects is the expected change in center-periphery relations toward decentralization in both countries – the phenomenon that will influence not only internal situation but also dynamic of cross-border cooperation as well, which in recent years had become tightly centralized.
Since the middle of the 1990s Russia and China have consistently strengthened their vertical authority and monopolized financial streams in the central budget, from which money went to the regions in the form of leveling transfers and subsidies – the process some observers called “re-centralization”.
However, in conditions of the rapid and poorly controlled spread of the coronavirus, it became clear that the strict centralized model was poorly suited in reacting to the threat in a timely fashion. As a result, in Russia on April 2 in an address to the nation President Vladimir Putin declared that the regions would be granted supplemental powers, and on April 8 in communications with the regional leaders he explained that “acting by a single model is not only ineffective but sometimes even harmful”. Besides, it would not only remove responsibility for possible excesses and mistakes by authorities on the local level, it would really remove the psychological barriers to act proactively for regional leaders, who over the past two decades relied more on direct instructions from Moscow than their own initiatives. One month later, in the meeting with heads of government agencies and regional leaders, Putin confirmed his willingness to give more credit to regions and readiness to vary the policies from territory to territory according to their local conditions. It is quite an important gesture signalizing trend towards decentralization, unique in Putin’s re-centralized Russia.
Another aspect related to center-periphery relations in Russia is the revaluation of relations with the capital. Paradoxically, even in Russo-Chinese borderlands the virus is perceived as a “threat” coming from Moscow and Europe rather than from Asia. In some regions, measures such as suspending transport ties to Moscow were simply unimaginable. It was possible that regions would go even further and try to close inter-regional borders, but such measures, which the Kremlin would take as steps toward separatism, had been blocked by Putin during his video conference meeting with regional leaders.
Moreover, as the federal center to which most of the finances and human resources go, Moscow was always unloved in the Russian provinces; however for perhaps the first time in the modern history of Russia, the spread of COVID-19 has made the capital a not so attractive place to live (due to higher danger of infection and higher prices for flat renting under the squeeze on incomes, coupled with more severe quarantine restrictions compared with most part of Russia).
During the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, many of ‘new Muscovites’ would have to return to their home regions – of course, not villages or small townships where they were born but regional centers (Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Rostov, Krasnodar, Vladivostok etc.), which could propose infrastructure comparable to Moscow’s but at a lower price. It seems that such regional centers would become major beneficiaries of unexpected decentralization and reduction of Moscow’s enormous influence. All this is a historic chance to get over abnormal situation when 1/7 of the population of the world’s largest country is concentrated in only one city – Moscow agglomeration.
However, for Russian Far East the pandemic outbreak means tough times after all. The COVID-19 ‘re-export’ from Russia to North East China in April-May (provinces Heilongjiang and Jilin) made the possibilities of reviving cross-border contacts very unclear, at least till the end of the year. The border had been locked since mid-April and there were no any signs of its quick opening. It means the Far East probably will suffer even more from the economic impact of the crisis compared to other regions of Russia (especially the tourist and logistics business), despite the fact that worsening Sino-US relations will facilitate Russia and China drawing even closer. The pandemic struck a blow to Russia against the background of a drop in demand for oil and of prices for energy, fraught with an economy falling into recession with cutback of federal subsidies. As such decentralization seems to be the only instrument to liven up local economy given that centralized methods of management in that remote and specific area were not effective enough.
As we see, local authorities, albeit through severely “tightening the screws,” could cope with the problem even without hands-on management from the capital. This means that they will be bolder in relations with Moscow, responding local specifics and using the specific instruments of their territories. In the future it could lead to better and more effective management in the peripheries under the process of gradual decentralization and development of regional centers.