By Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Look at the faces in this Eastern port city - the same European features as in Moscow or Minsk. Look at the buildings - the same stolid architecture you find all the way to Poland. There is no doubt you are in Russia.
But look again,at the cars - every one a Japanese sedan. Or at the goods in the shop windows - guava juice from the Philippines, apples from Washington State, and just about everything else from South Korea. You know you are also on Asia's Pacific Rim.
With streetcars climbing hills that overlook a sweeping bay, there is even a touch of San Francisco about Vladivostok. And as the Russian Far East dreams of economic prosperity, it is looking for its future across the ocean, its back turned to the west.
"Everyone is interested in boosting integration with the Asia-Pacific region," says Pyotr Baklanov, head of the Geographical Institute here. "Businessmen and entrepreneurs don't care about the domestic market."
"People have understood that if they want to survive, it is unthinkable to do so by trading with western Russia," adds Viktor Tumanov, a banker who until recently was in charge of Vladivostok's foreign economic ties.
But concerns among centrally minded Kremlin bureaucrats that such attitudes, coupled with the Far East's wealth of natural resources, might ignite separatist passions, have proved unfounded. It is hard to find anyone here who calls Moscow's rule into question, and support for close ties with the heartland is nearly unanimous. If a growing sense of abandonment by Moscow has fed an eagerness for economic independence, it has not fuelled similar political ambitions.
Considering Vladivostok's position on the map - closer to Seattle than to Moscow - it is hardly surprising that the port, and the Primorsky territory it serves, should be seeking to cast it's lot with the neighboring "tiger" economies of the Pacific, rather than the distant and uncertain free market that is emerging in Russia itself.
With fabulous fisheries just offshore, endless fields of valuable timber stretching into the wilderness, and huge, untapped mineral resources including gold, Russia's Far East has a lot to offer.
And the fact that it is making most of its offers to foreign trading partners "is a natural process where economic relations are largely determined by economic expediency," points out Viktor Larin, director of the Institute of History in Vladivostok.
But this is new. During seven decades of Soviet rule, political dictates kept the Far East tied tightly to the heartland, curbing with a wall of state controls any Eastward urges local officials might have felt.
"Our proximity to Asian countries did not affect us ... because we had little freedom to develop ties," explains Professor Baklanov. "The fact is that we are a long, long way from the industrially developed regions of Russia, and very, very close to important regions on the Pacific rim. But in the past, these concrete circumstances did not manifest themselves."
The Soviet authorities sidestepped the "concrete circumstances" of geographic reality in the only way possible, using massive subsidies to make rail transport along the famed trans-Siberian railroad feasible. …