Early September, the 6th edition of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) under the theme “New Opportunities for the Far East in a Changed World” was held and considered as vital platform for strengthening especially economic ties among Asia-Pacific countries and the Far East region of Russia. In addition, the forum discussed ways to effectively deal with demography, investment and development questions. What is known as the Far East covers approximately 40% of Russia’s territory.
By Kester Kenn Klomegah
The Far East is almost the size of Canada with its current population (a mixture of natives plus legalized immigrants) more than 38 million. That compared, the Far East with estimated 6.3 million is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world. The Russian government continues discussing a wide range of re-population programmes, hoping to attract in particular Russians there, even offering incentives such as double income, mortgage system, early retirement and free plots of land, but little results have been recorded.
The September forum, and all the previous ones, focused on raising sustainable development that primarily includes building infrastructure, encouraging business investment, designing pathways to form industrial clusters and increasing the population. The question is on human habitation and sustenance, but this vast region of the country is sparsely inhabited. Kremlin has made this its absolute long-term priority, and the challenging task is to create an environment for investment and attract people.
President Vladimir Putin acknowledged, at a meeting on the socio-economic development of the Far East, that the speedy outflow of the population from the Far East suggests that the region has not yet received enough support measures. “A lot is being done, but it is still not enough if we observe an outflow of the population,” he argued.
“Our historical task is not only to keep people in the territories that were mastered by our ancestors for centuries, but to increase the population,” the Russian leader said. Putin stated that the rate of the outflow of people had slightly decreased, but had not stopped. He called the growth of the population in the Russian Far East a “historical task.”
For this purpose, it is necessary to develop production capacities, create jobs and ensure people’s incomes. At the same time, Putin also called for using the resources that have already been allocated to the region. “Considerable resources have been allocated and they need to be used effectively,” he suggested, addressing the opening of the Eastern Economic Forum.
The September gathering brought together Russian and foreign entrepreneurs, politicians, experts, and representatives of the media as well as public organizations to exchange experiences and ideas, discuss the most pressing business and development issues and map out useful joint projects and initiatives for the region. Many of the speakers were very frank and objective in their speeches, highlighted possible ways for modernizing the region.
The average Far Eastern city fares about 10% worse than the Russian average in terms of housing provision and quality of medical services. “We need intensive breakthrough development. Master plans involving the integrated development of the region could provide the key to this development. What is required is a resource center for urban development covering the Far Eastern Federal District. Secondly, the region is facing a severe shortage of highly skilled workers, especially in architecture and urban planning,” Architect and Partner at KB Strelka, Alexey Muratov told the session on Urban Planning.
The Far Eastern Federal District has significant economic potential and is of interest to both local and foreign business, but there is an imbalance between investment and economic potential in the region. For Artem Dovlatov, Deputy Chairman and Member of the Management Board of VEB of the Russian Federation, “the Far East is a very interesting region and of particular importance to the government. This is why the Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that the Far East will be a priority region for Russia in the 21st century. From the perspective of investors, the region is of serious interest. It benefits from vast resources, proximity to the Asia-Pacific region, and diverse scientific and technological potential.”
“There are certain barriers, of course, and investors still approach investing in the region with a degree of caution, since the barriers are objective. They are associated with the population (lack of staff) and there are costs related to construction…. The Far East is a highly urbanized region. This presents a huge challenge because we need to increase quality of life in the cities in order to prevent outward migration or attract new residents. Strategic planning in cities is needed here,” added Dovlatov.
Further at a different session, Alexey Muratov, Architect and Partner at KB Strelka, simply puts it, “there aren’t enough people in the Far East. The region accounts for 40% of the country’s land mass but only 5.5% of its inhabitants. How can we solve the central challenge, which is to say the imbalance of economic and investment potential? The first and most obvious solution relates to rotation work. Modern workers’ settlements are in no way inferior to cities in terms of comfort. The second option is to attract residents to cities in order to create new jobs. The issue of the urban environment and quality of life is relevant here. According to all polls, quality of life is the key factor behind outward migration.”
Nikolay Kharitonov, Chairman of the Committee for Regional Policy and Issues of the North and Far East, State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, has expressed worries about how to curb migration from the Far East. “Getting a Far Eastern hectare helps people to get settled here (in the Far East) instead of leaving for the south or elsewhere,” he explained, adding that for transforming the region, it needs good transportation network, good infrastructure and good social facilities, employment opportunities and suitable conditions for human habitation.
Admittedly, lack of social infrastructure constitutes a big hinderance to many projects. “Social infrastructure is of vital importance to the Far East. If people are fleeing the region, how can we motivate them to stay here? They need the right social infrastructure: health care, education, and everything in between,” according to the views of the Chief Executive Officer of VTB Infrastructure Holding Oleg Pankratov.
The Far East offers a platform for Russia’s entry into global markets and attracting international investment. Russia is seeking to take its place in the global system of division of labor, so it’s concentrating on projects with high added value. “Russia currently has the best conditions in the world to attract human resources and financial resources and take the next technological step. Why would you just come to the Russian market? Let’s manufacture things here for the whole world to compete with other centres of power, relatively speaking. The Russian government has to provide the best conditions for this,” pointed out Arnika Holding President Alexander Generalov.
Some foreign participants say it is necessary to expand support measures for business startups, consistently attempt to identify and remove development obstacles. “The Chinese experience is that high technologies and companies always play a very important role in the development of the local economy. We help them with resources, we allocate resources, and you do that too. The tech park should be connected to all resources and the international market. And human resources are very important. If you don’t have a good team to help startups, nothing will happen,” says International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation Vice Chairman Chen Herbert.
On one hand, entrepreneurs have little trust in the government due to its excessive control and supervision. There are still many problems including bureaucracy and red tape. On the other hand, based on the tasks defined by the country’s leadership, a set of measures is being implemented to enhance the business climate.
The regulatory framework is being improved in the most important and problematic areas of government regulation. Institutions and infrastructure are being created for the development of investment activity. The best practices to support entrepreneurship are being introduced, including mechanisms for direct financial assistance, concessional lending, tax incentives, and moratorium on government inspections.
Developing the transport and logistics infrastructure. The carrying capacity of the railways needs to be increased, to develop and upgrade the Trans-Siberian Railway. “Russia’s leadership also has concerns regarding the opportunities offered by the Trans-Siberian Railway. It is indeed a problem, because it is a major factor hindering economic growth in Russia, both in terms of foreign trade, and in terms of domestic transportation. We expect carrying capacity to be expanded in the near future,” believes Sergey Katyrin, President, Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation.
The potential exists for Russia and South Korea to cooperate across a broad range of areas, including industry, energy, and the environment. “We particularly want to highlight the cooperation that has taken shape in relation to smart city projects, industrial parks, and multimodal terminals for shipping in Primorye Territory. One of our assets is a joint venture with the Zvezda Shipbuilding Complex. We have also acquired a grain terminal and are developing this business in Primorye Territory. Collaboration between our two nations is increasing in energy, fishing, and other areas,” Christopher Koo, Chairman, Korea International Trade Association (KITA).
“South Korea has traversed a fairly long path in relation to the creation of a waste management system in the early 1990s. Since that time, the system has come to closely reflect our own targets in terms of waste disposal. At the start of this journey, virtually 80% of waste in South Korea went to landfill sites. Today, more than 60% is recycled. In Russia, the President has set the objective of processing – i.e., sorting – 100% of waste, and utilizing 50% of it by 2030. Naturally, we would be delighted to employ technological solutions in this area which have been implemented in South Korea,” added Denis Butsayev, General Director, Russian Environmental Operator Public Law Company.
Besides South Korea, a number foreign countries strike deals at the forum, most of from the Asian Pacific region. Russia and Japan signed deals. China also signed several deals there as Russia has fast developing bilateral relations and both are members of BRICS. For instance, China has the following from the documents:
China Railway International Group and Primorye Territory signed a statement of mutual interest and intent to implement an investment project for the Construction of Vladivostok ring road in Primorye Territory. Stage 1: Russky Island – Yelena Island – Ulitsa Kazanskaya in Primorye Territory. Investment volume: RUB 75 billion.
VEB.RF and the ZED Development project company (part of Region Group) signed a cooperation agreement for the construction of an aerial lift across the Amur river at the section of the Russian-Chinese national border linking the cities of Blagoveshchensk (Russia) and Heihe (China). The construction project is being implemented jointly by the Russian investor and its Chinese partner, the China Railway Construction Corporation. VEB.RF will invest RUB 2 billion.
The Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Russian Federation and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security of the People’s Republic of China signed a memorandum of understanding with the aim of establishing and strengthening cooperation on labour and social security issues of mutual interest.
Pharmeco and the Union of Chinese Entrepreneurs in Russia signed a partnership agreement with the aim of developing cooperation between Russian and Chinese organizations and Asia-Pacific countries in the field of pharmacology and the construction of healthcare facilities.
Zeleny Bulvar and KitayStroy signed a cooperation agreement on the construction of residential real estate in Vladivostok. Two 25-floor apartment buildings are set to be built in the Zeleny Ugol neighbourhood of Vladivostok by 2025.
Stroytransgaz and KitayStroy signed an agreement on the implementation of a project to build a museum and accompanying educational and cultural centre in Vladivostok.
The Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic, VEB.RF, ECN Group and Marubeni Corporation signed an agreement to implement a project to produce ships using methanol fuel at the Zvezda shipyard.
GTLK and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines signed an agreement for Mitsui O.S.K. Lines to make an equity investment in GTLK Asia Maritime.
The Ministry of Energy of the Russian Federation and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan signed a bilateral agreement on the supply of LNG and gas condensate.
Novatek and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) signed an agreement on strategic cooperation on low-carbon projects.
The Europlast Primorsky Plant and Ryozai Kaihatsu signed a memorandum of cooperation on the expansion of exports to Japan between the parties.
The Europlast Primorsky Plant and Ryozai Kaihatsu signed a contract on the sale and purchase of PET preforms.
It is expected that the Far East will continue attracting investments, both Russian and foreign. “We will continue to try to constantly create new development opportunities, thus securing for the Far East this status of a testing ground for management technologies associated with the development of the region,” Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Yury Trutnev said at the conference following the forum.
According to the official forum documents: “More than 380 agreements were signed at the forum. International and foreign companies, organizations, ministries and departments have signed 24 documents – 9 with China, 6 with Japan, 3 with Kazakhstan, by one agreement each with Austria, Vietnam, Canada, Serbia and Ethiopia.” And that agreements totaling 3.6 trillion rubles (US$49 billion) were signed at the Eastern Economic Forum (including agreements, the amount of which is not a commercial secret).
The Eastern Economic Forum was established by decree of President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin in 2015 to support the economic development of Russia’s Far East and to expand international cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. During the 2019 forum, the “Welcome to the Far East” exhibition particularly showcased the results of the work of government agencies over the previous five years and the prospects for further development of the Far East under the National Programme 2025.
Until 2000, the Russian Far East lacked officially defined boundaries, according to historical archival documents. A single term “Siberia and the Far East” often referred to the regions east of the Urals without drawing a clear distinction between “Siberia” and “the Far East” on the territory of Russia. That however, the Far East is generally considered as the easternmost territory of Russia, between Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. [….]