THE “GREATER ALTAI:” TRANSBORDER REGIONAL COOPERATION AT THE MEETING PLACE OF CENTRAL ASIA AND SIBERIA
Oleg Barabanov, Senior research associate, Russian Institute of Strategic Research, assistant professor, Department of Political Science, Moscow State Institute (University) of International Relations (Moscow, Russian Federation)
The Greater Altai, a pioneering project of transborder regional cooperation, has been discussed since 1998. At first the local regional initiatives limited themselves to individual ecological problems. In summer 2000 the talks (between regional administration and nongovernmental structures) reached a qualitatively new level. Those who participate in them are talking about a full-scale transborder cooperation that would imitate the “Euroregions.” They want to set up an Altai Mountainous Region or the Greater Altai (the Russian terms) or the Eastern-Central Asian Economic Zone as the project is known in China.
On the Russian side it is the Altai Territory and the Republic of Altai that are involved in these plans, on the Kazakh side, the East Kazakhstan Region, on the Mongolian, the Baian-Ulegei and Kobdo aimaks, on the Chinese, the Altai District of the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The so-called Altai Declaration was made public in September 1998 at a conference on the region’s sustainable development convened in Urumqi (the administrative center of the XUAR) on the initiative of the government of the Republic of Altai and the republican nature-protection organizations as well as of the East Kazakhstan Region, the XUAR and the Baian-Ulegei aimak. It called on all interested parties to pool their efforts to protect the nature of the Altai Mountains on both sides of the border and to turn the already existing reserves into a transborder chain of national parks. The declaration called on the governments of the four countries to adopt an interstate convention on sustainable development of the Altai Region (known as the Altai convention). The conference announced that the regional nature-protection bodies were speaking in the name of the corresponding governments. Later, their enumeration in the declaration was replaced with the “four states” formula.1
In the summer and fall of 2000 a new cycle of conferences on transborder economic integration in Altai took place with the support of regional authorities. In July a meeting in the city of Altai, the capital of the Altai District of the XUAR, adopted a Declaration on Development of International Cooperation in the Altai Mountainous Region,2 while a conference held in July on Lake Aia (Altai Territory) created a permanent structure in the form of the Altai Mountain Forum.
Later a political and ideological conception of the Greater Altai as a transborder complex was formulated. On 1 November, 2000 it was approved by local administrations of the four countries when their representatives gathered in Barnaul for another international conference convened by the Administration of the Altai Territory. “Euroregions” (transborder associations of adjacent regions inside the European Union and along its outside borders) were suggested as a pattern of cooperation in Altai. The conference’s final declaration said that the Greater Altai was an integral part of New Asia that was building up an infrastructure of equal and mutually advantageous relations on an inter-regional basis.3
One should also point out that the Greater Altai conception caused no objections in the Foreign Ministry of Russia (the administration of the Altai Territory had made an inquiry there), which means that it meets Russia’s national interests in this region.
The XUAR official structures (the committee for science and technology, and that for trade and economy) offered the conference convened in the Chinese city of Altai their papers on the main interests behind the region’s desire to cooperate with the Russian region of Altai: first, cattle breeding in the mountains and bilateral processing projects (joint ventures in leather- and furworking, etc.); second, joint mining in the region: small gold, copper, nickel, mercury, and semi-precious stones deposits as well as polymetallic deposits (zinc, lead, etc.) can be found on border’s sides. Coal can be mined in the Mongolian and Chinese parts of Altai. People from the XUAR called on the conference to start joint prospecting and mining; they also wanted to apply Russian and Kazakh mining technologies in their autonomous region. Tourism was described as another area of Chinese interests.4
Finally, there is another important aspect—joint development of the region’s transport infrastructure. The western stretch of the Russian-Chinese border (55 km long) that runs across the region is a hard to access mountainous area. The conference agreed that a highway across the Kanas (Khanaz) pass should be laid there. Today, there are two border checkpoints between the Altai District of the XUAR and Kazakhstan (one of them, Timunai, is permanent and the other temporal).
There are two seasonal crossings to Mongolia. They have a bilateral status and cannot be used by Russians. As a result the goods moved between Southern Siberia and Western China have to cover long distances to cross into China in Southern Kazakhstan.
The Russian regional authorities also supported the idea of direct transportation routes. Alexander Surikov, head of the administration of the Altai Territory, greeted the idea of a highway: it would simplify trade between Southern Siberia and the XUAR and might develop into part of the Russian alternative to the Great Silk Road designed to connect Europe and China via Central Asia.
On Surikov’s initiative the Sibirskoe Soglashenie interregional association asked President Putin for a federal support for the project. The president agreed: today the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade is working on the project on the instructions of the Russian Federation government while the Foreign Ministry of Russia transferred corresponding suggestions to the Chinese leaders. As distinct from enthusiastic response of the XUAR heads, the reception in the center was definitely cool.
Ecologists and some of the ethnic movements were dead set against the project: the border plateau Ukok across which the highway was expected to run had been announced a “zone of peace” (as a natural and a cultural-religious zone). The State Assembly of the Republic of Altai became a mouthpiece of those who opposed the project.
Thus, from the very beginning the Greater Altai project has been developing along two lines: an ecological and an economic one. The supporters of the former are insisting on turning the Altai mountainous system into a certain “zone of peace,” to suspend all large-scale economic projects there and to develop integration efforts into a network of transborder reserves and tourist attractions. The supporters of the latter option believe that economic cooperation on both sides of the border should go ahead and that infrastructure should receive priority attention. This is what the local executive structures are thinking.
The relations between the two trends are openly hostile and the pressure mounts together with the interest in the project. Late in 2000 the Barnaul media started an information war: there were hints that those who were for the highway were the Chinese “agents of influence” while the ecological structures that opposed the construction might be labeled American “agents of influence” since they were funded by American ecological organizations. At the same time, the discussions around the project added heat to political confrontation between the branches of power in the Republic of Altai while the economic complexes of the Altai Territory and the republic demonstrated their unity. The media exploited the situation to talk about the problem’s political side. They hinted that the territory and the republic might be re-united into a single federation entity (before 1991 the republic had been part of the Altai Territory as the Gorno-Altai Autonomous Region).
Those who were against the project said that the highway would increase Chinese expansion. Their opponents argued that a relatively small number of the Chinese in the Altai area (as compared with other Siberian regions) was explained by the poor state of the local economy rather than an absence of a highway. There was another geopolitical argument in favor of the project: the highway would create a reliable link with the Altai District of the XUAR that would allow Russia to monitor the situation in the area just across its border. This is ecologically important: the uncontrolled water intake from the Irtysh upper reaches in China’s autonomous region causes concern not only in Kazakhstan but also in Russia. Historical arguments were widely used: the northern fringes of the XUAR had exhibited a trend toward independence; in the 1940s there was an Eastern Turkestan Republic there.5
The polemics reached its peak in late 2000-first half of 2001. Then it subsided mainly because of lack of progress in the talks between Russia and China. The XUAR leaders wanted the highway while the Chinese government showed a great deal of caution that sometimes developed into a negative attitude. As a result, the project was blocked. Today it is gradually replaced with an idea of a gas pipeline running from Siberian gas deposits to the XUAR across Altai (the so-called western route). It shows more promise than the highway project.
Early in 2002 when Mikhail Lapshin, a politician well known in Russia, was elected president of the Republic of Altai, new ideas about cooperation within the Greater Altai project appeared. The transborder communication projects became more ambitious: previous experience had shown that joint local decisions were impossible because the XUAR and local Kazakh authorities had no right of independent decision-making. The government of the Republic of Altai suggests an idea of creating the so-called Altai Four (Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia) that will be functioning on the highest level or, at least, on the heads of government level. The Four is expected to identify the main cooperation trends and endorse annual plans to be realized, under control from the center, at the regional level. The project authors would like to see the Four an independent structure or a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (in which Mongolian participation would be much more active). Future will show whether this project can be realized.
So far the Greater Altai project remains on paper while transborder cooperation is functioning on the bilateral level. The Altai Territory is actively developing its contacts with the XUAR: in 1998 they adopted a decision on further cooperation. In February 1999 Premier of China Zhu Rongji signed in Moscow four agreements on transborder cooperation, one of them between the Altai Territory and the XUAR. Early in April 1999 a Territory delegation headed by Governor Surikov visited the XUAR and concluded agreements on supplies of Chinese cotton in exchange for timber from Altai, on buying Chinese equipment for Polyeks paper mill in Biisk, etc. It was the beginning of fruitful cooperation with regular meetings of regional authorities. It should be said, however, that the XUAR government rather than the closest to the border Altai District of China is involved in bilateral contacts.
Frequent exchange of business delegations and tourists between South Siberia of Russia and the XUAR prompted the authorities of the Altai Territory to ask the Foreign Ministry of Russia to open consulates in Urumqi and in one of the South Siberian cities (Novosibirsk, Krasnoiarsk or Barnaul) on a bilateral basis.
Cooperation between Russian Altai and other Siberian regions, on the one hand, and Central Asia, on the other, attracts much attention because under Soviet power the Altai industry was tied to Central Asia and Kazakhstan with the Trans-Siberian Main Line: industrial enterprises received raw materials from these republics and sold up to 30 percent of their products there. The Soviet Union’s disintegration that deprived the region of its ties dealt it a heavy blow.
Light and chemical industries suffered most together with agricultural machine-building. All large textile factories (the former Barnaul Melange Plant, now a joint-stock company Melangist, the Barnaul Cotton Mill, and others) used to buy cotton in Uzbekistan. After 1991 their production dropped, which caused decline in the garment industry. The share of light industry in the Territory’s industrial structure shrank: in 1991 it was 13.2 percent; in 1992, 9.4 percent; in 1993, 6.6 percent; in 1994, 4.4 percent; in 1995, 3.8 percent. Absolute figures also dropped dramatically: in 1992 the Territory produced 208,713 thous sq m of cotton fabrics, in 1996 the figure was 9,156 thous sq m. The share of people employed in the light industry also declined, though to a smaller extent: in 1991 the industry employed 9.6 percent while in 1995, 6.1 percent.
Agricultural machine-building was badly hit as well: in the past it accounted for 30 percent of total machine-building and metalworking in the Territory. In Soviet times the largest plants (Tractor Works in Rubtsovsk, that is now a joint-stock company Alttrak, Altaidiezel in Barnaul, the Rubtsovsk plant of tractor electrical equipment and Traktorozapchast in Rubtsovsk, and Sibagromash) mainly worked for Central Asia. Today, the industry’s facilities are underloaded: in 1995, only 7 percent of industrial facilities produced tractors; 4 percent, ploughs, about 1.5 percent, tractor and harvester engines. In 1991 the Territory produced 20,127 tractors, in 1995, 2,382 tractors (nearly 10 times less). The decline continued: the figure for 1996 was 1,279. The production of tractor ploughs dropped from 67,918 in 1992 to 782 in 1996.
On the whole, the volume of Central Asia-related production in the Territory dropped by 80 percent in the late 1990s as compared with the 1991 level; the industry lost 15 thous jobs.6
The Territory administration did the most obvious thing: it tried to restore relations with Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan7). In October 1997, within the Sibirskoe Soglashenie association of governors the administration initiated an international business center Siberia-Central Asia designed to promote contacts and coordination on the interregional level.
In September 1998 this initiative produced an international fair of transborder trade “Siberia-Asia 98” in Rubtsovsk that attracted over 100 companies from Siberia, Central Asia and China. The conference conducted within its framework discussed the problems and practice of interregional cooperation and transborder trade and improved its contacts with Central Asia on the bilateral and regional level. It was at this conference that the idea of four-sided economic cooperation within the Greater Altai was made public.8 The Altai Territory concluded agreements on cooperation with the East Kazakhstan, Pavlodar, and North Kazakhstan regions of Kazakhstan.
One should say that in May 2002 the Territory administration held talks with official representatives of the East Kazakhstan Region, the Kazkommertsbank and the Zhardemagro agroindustrial investment company, and reached an agreement on Kazakh investments in the Territory’s food and processing industries.
Regional cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan in the Steppe Altai is hampered by the fact that the border there can be easily penetrated by smugglers carrying goods and drugs partly because the law enforcement and customs structures have not yet learned how to cooperate efficiently. For example, the Siberian companies doing business with Central Asia were badly hit by the additional customs tariff of 2 percent of the cost of goods moved across the border introduced by Kazakhstan. As a result, the amount of transit goods dropped 9 times.
There is another problem in the relations between Russia and Kazakhstan—the border between them is virtually open with a great number of bypasses in the steppe and an absence of natural obstacles. As a result, strategic raw materials and products that are subject to non-tariff regulation are smuggled out of Russia. There is a constant inflow of drugs and related raw materials from Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
Today, the Tajik and partly the Uzbek diaspora in Siberia serve as drug trans-shipping points. There is official information supplied by the militia that trade in fruit and other Central Asian products is unprofitable because of transportation costs and bribes. The local militia are convinced that this trade serves to cover drug trafficking. Smuggling is made easy by the fact that the Russian customs checkpoint is removed from the state border and is found in Rubtsovsk where it controls the main railway and motorway going from Kazakhstan via Altai Territory to other regions of Siberia. Between the border and the customs checkpoint there are several villages (Veseloiarsk is the largest of them) where trains and trucks are stopped and unloaded for bribe. The local people earn by moving drugs bypassing Rubtsovsk to other railways stations, mainly Pospelikha. In this way the bulk of drugs is spread across the territory before transports arrive at the checkpoint.
The militia of Kazakhstan virtually refuses to cooperate with their Russian colleagues and declines all suggestions about joint operations. This makes the border much easier to negotiate. All attempts of the Altaian militia to organize cooperation ended with agreements that remained on paper: the Kazakh side refused to act together and denied access to its territory for Altaian militiamen who wanted to take part in operations. The Territorial authorities have been trying for five years now to initiate, on the governmental level, adequate protection of the state border between Russia and Kazakhstan.
Several bilateral and multilateral economic projects are being realized in Mongolia.9 The Millennium Road is the main of them. It is intended to create and maintain in good order a trans-Mongolia network of highways—it will cross Mongolia from the west to the east and from the north to the south. Japanese and Chinese companies have already exhibited a lot of interest in the project. The Mongolian side has nearly reached an agreement with Japanese companies on building the entire eastern stretch. China has already modernized the highway leading from the capital of Mongolia to the country’s northern border. (It should be said that the Mongolian side is not quite satisfied with the quality of work.) XUAR companies volunteered to pay for a highway from the Chinese border to the city of Kobdo and agreed to work together with other firms in building highways in the west and south.
In addition, Mongolia invited Russian representatives to modernize the highway’s western stretch, from the border with the Republic of Altai to Kobdo and further on. Russia refused to pay for the project while Mongolia had no money to pay itself. Today the Mongolian side is trying to get a bonded credit from Russia to pay for construction that will be carried out by Russian contractors. This variant is being discussed by the government.
Transborder trade and investment cooperation will profit from better roads in Western Mongolia. All countries actively involved in the project will receive best starting positions for its economic involvement in the region.
Mongolia invited the Republic of Altai to take part in mining silver and extracting ores from the polymetallic deposits in the northwestern corner of Mongolia close to the Russian border. This is an economically promising project.
It should be said that transborder cooperation with Mongolia is gradually reaching a higher level and will probably include entire Siberia. The Sibirskoe Soglashenie association of the Siberian governors is working on a project of an association of transborder cooperation between Siberian and Mongolian regions so that to make cooperation more efficient.
Transborder cooperation between Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia in Altai is developing dynamically. Political will of the central and local authorities of the four states can be transformed into the Greater Altai multisided project of transborder cooperation. If realized it can become an experiment in using the experience of transborder regional cooperation in the European Union in other parts of the world when the first Asiaregions are formed according to the Euroregion pattern. They will help consolidate international security and stability. Even now the ideas themselves stimulate economic and cultural cooperation in the area where Central Asia and Siberia meet. Both regions will undoubtedly profit from this.
1 For the materials of the conference, see: Strategic Considerations on the Development of Central Asia, Urumqi, 1998.
2 “Deklaratsia o razvitii mezhdunarodnogo sotrudnichestva v Altaiskom gornom regione,” Sibir v structure transaziatskikh sviazei: problemy prigranichnoi torgovli i mezhregional’nogo vzaimodeistvia, Administratsia Altaiskogo kraia Press, Barnaul, 2000, pp. 259-261.
3 “Rezolutsia mezhdunarodnoi nauchno-prakticheskoi konferentsii ‘Sibir v transaziatskikh sviaziakh: problemy prigranichnoi torgovli i mezhregional’nogo vzaimodeistvia’,” Sibir v structure transaziatskikh sviazei: problemy prigranichnoi torgovli i mezhregional’nogo vzaimodeistvia, pp. 235-241.
4 The conference materials were published in Chinese and Russian (see: Konferentsia po nauchno-tekhnicheskomu sotrudnichestvu i ekonomicheskomu razvitiu Altaiskogo regiona, Collection, Altai, 2000).
5 More details about the polemics can be found in works by the same author: O.N. Barabanov, “Altaiskii krai,” Konstitutsionnoe pravo: vostochnoevropeiskoe obozrenie, Tsentr konstitutsionnykh issledovanii Moskovskogo obshchestvennogo nauchnogo fonda Press, Moscow, No. 4, 2000, pp. 176-179; idem,“Doroga v Kitai: mify i realnost’,” Format, Komitet po pechati i informatsii Administratsii Altaiskogo kraia Press, Barnaul, No. 1, 2001, pp. 17-18; idem, “‘Bolshoi Altai’: novye vozmozhnosti dlia rossiiskoi politiki v Kitae,” Rossia-Tsentral’naia Azia: problemy migratsii i bezopasnosti, Altaiskii gosudarstvenniy universitet Press, Barnaul, 2002, pp. 41-46.
6 The figures are borrowed from Osnovnye tendentsii sotsial’no-ekonomicheskogo razvitia Altaiskogo kraia v gody radikalnykh reform, ed. by A.Ia. Trotskovskiy and N.A. Chertov, Barnaul, 1997, pp. 127-151, 323.
7 For more detail, see: O.N. Barabanov, S.Iu. Nozhkin, “Primer regional’nogo sotrudnichestva (Altaiskii krai i Uzbekistan),” Uzbekistan: obretenie novogo oblika, Vol. 2, Rossiiskii institut strategicheskikh issledovanii, Moscow, 1998, pp. 297-308.
8 For the materials of the conference, see: Problemy i praktika mezhregional’nogo sotrudnichestva i prigranichnoi torgovli, Rubtsovsk, 1998.
9 The details about the relations between Russian Altai and the border areas of Mongolia in the 1990s can be found in: O.N. Barabanov, S.Iu. Nozhkin, “Vzaimootnoshenia Mongolii s Altaiskim kraiem,” Mongolia: aktualnye voprosy natsional’noi bezopasnosti, Russian Institute of Strategic Research, Moscow, 1998, pp. 151-166; idem, “Mongol, Altain khiazgaaryn khariltsaa,” Mongol ulsyn aiuulgui baidal: Mongol, Orosyn sudlaachdyn uzel bodol, Strategiin sudalgaany khureelen, Ulaanbaatar, 1999, pp. 159-175 (in Mongolian).