Russia Is Feeding Off and Neglecting Siberia

Siberia has become more important to the Russian economy, yet it remains the most backward half of the country.

The sun sets on Novosibirsk, the capital of Russia's Siberian Federal District, December 9, 2011
The sun sets on Novosibirsk, the capital of Russia’s Siberian Federal District, December 9, 2011 (Mikhail Koninin)

Russia is in the unusual situation of feeding off a settler colony that itself remains poor and underdeveloped.

Vladislav Inozemtsev writes in The American Interest that Siberia accounts for 75 percent of Russia’s landmass, 20 percent of its population and 76 to 78 percent of its exports.

During the Soviet Union, the figures were 57, 10 and 46 percent, respectively.

If Siberia stopped supplying commodities to Moscow, its exports would be smaller than Hungary’s.

Backward

Yet Siberia is also the most backward part of Russia.

The median monthly income in the Siberian Federal District was 23,584 rubles in 2015 versus a national median of 30,474.

The share of regional tax revenue accruing to the Siberian government dropped from 51 percent in 1997 to less than 34 percent in 2014, a result of the central government introducing new taxes and headquartering state corporations that operate in Siberia in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where they pay their regional taxes.

Development

Inozemtsev laments that Russia spends so much energy tussling with former satellites in Eastern Europe and restive “republics” in the North Caucasus — which account for only a tiny share of Russia’s economy and population — when it could be developing Siberia.

The country should abandon its post-imperial designs, he writes; stop nursing old wounds and refocus on creating a more balanced and better-managed internal structure that gives Siberia the influence it deserves.

Concretely, that would involve deregulating economic activity to allow Siberians to acquire land for personal use; building roads, railroads and airfields; inviting foreign investors and developing new oil and gas fields or other natural resources.

All of which would require a degree of political liberalization or rapprochement with the West — neither of which seems likely so long as Vladimir Putin remains president.