Russia’s Far East Transborder Pains: China Threat Syndrome and the Tragedy of the Anticommons

The Russian Far East (RFE) has come a long way in the last fifteen years. The signature image of the region’s largest city of Vladivostok is no longer that of a quaint, late-nineteenth century railway station, but that of a daringly aerodynamic, cable-stayed bridge built over a mile long and two hundred feet tall to the nearby Russky Island for the 2012 APEC summit. The buildings erected for the summit are now home to the Federal Far Eastern State University. My memories of struggling through a chaotic crowd of passengers cramped onboard a gritty, smoke-belching, raucous ferry back in 1999—the only way to get to what was then a desolate island—have receded. Since then, Russia and China signed a friendship treaty (2001) and a border settlement agreement (2004)—the latter concluding 40 years of negotiations that were interrupted by armed border clashes around 1969.1 Russia’s trade with China spiked from USD 6bn when I took that rumbling ferry to USD 88bn at the time of the 2012 Vladivostok APEC summit.  The increase in bilateral trade remains impressive despite dropping to about USD 68bn in 2015.2 After Beijing and Moscow signed 30-year energy contracts worth nearly half a trillion dollars in late 2014, transcontinental oil and gas pipelines are expected to stretch even further from deep in Siberia toward Vladivostok and the Russia-China borderlands. Moscow Exchange saw a rapid rise in the yuan-ruble trade.3 Several transborder, special trade zones and infrastructure projects got underway in Russia’s provinces along the China border. These projects have fed an upbeat narrative.

Also gone are the days when a governor of Primorskii krai—the most populous and economically advanced province of the Russian Far East that includes Vladivostok—could thrive in power on public warnings that cross-border Chinese migration would turn the RFE into a messy and violent “Asian Balkans.”4 In a 2000 survey of 1,010 Primorskii krai residents—that I commissioned from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History, Ethnography, and Anthropology of the Peoples of the Russian Far East—82 percent were convinced China would eventually take over their province, while 46 percent feared the takeover would happen through  “peaceful infiltration” of Chinese traders and laborers.  Since then, these alarmist views have mellowed markedly. When the same institute interviewed 650 Primorskii residents for me in November 2005—including 387 who were the same people interviewed in 2000—the number of respondents fearing Chinese claims on their territory fell by 10 percent, and of those fearing “peaceful infiltration” fell by seven percent.  In a 2013 Vladivostok survey (N=680), conducted by a reputed Moscow-based ROMIR agency as part of Norway’s Social Science Research Council project on “New Russian Nationalism” (NEORUSS), 20 percent fewer respondents than in 2000 believed Primorskii would lose territory to China. Only 24 percent in 2013 feared loss of sovereignty through “peaceful infiltration” of Chinese migrants. In an opinion sea change, respondents who saw China’s land grab in Primorskii as unlikely were now in a minority.5

Figure 1. Fear of Chinese Migration and China’s Territorial Claims Declines Among Primorskii Krai Residents, 2000-2013 (% respondents)
Note: Based on opinion surveys in Primorskii krai using multistage probability samples of local adult population in 2000 (N=1,010), 2005 (N=650), and 2013 (N=680). This table shows percentage of respondents excluding the missing data (“don’t knows” and refusals to answer) for each question in each survey. The missing data accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the total number of responses per question in 2005 and 2013 and 23-25 percent in 2000.

Local Pains

The border provinces of the Russian Far East—including areas outside Vladivostok—would seem to be in an excellent position to gain from these developments. And yet, barriers to cross-border trade and economic development in the region have been yielding to the new opportunities of the last two decades at best slowly and torturously and in certain respects these barriers may have become more daunting. According to a 2015 assessment of Russia’s Far East Development Ministryset up in 2012 to spearhead regional economic growth—, the problem is similar to the one observers pointed out repeatedly over the last century. “Despite its tremendous…potential, the [Far East and Baikal] macroregion’s role in Russia’s economy must be characterized as insignificant. The macroregion’s role in the Asia-Pacific regional economy is even smaller.”6 While comprising 7.5 percent of Russia’s population and 45.5 percent of its territory, noted the ministry, the Far Eastern provinces generated just 3 percent of Russia’s manufacturing output in 2012 and had lower labor productivity than Russia’s average. Outmigration continued to deplete the already sparse (1.4 people per square kilometer) regional population, with the net outflow of 177,000 people and a workforce reduction of 75,000 from 2008 through 2012.7  Yet, as we see in greater detail below, the ministry’s own program for economic and social development of the Far East and Lake Baikal region through 2025 skips over the fundamental problems that prop up the barriers to regional growth. Also symptomatically, the draft law on transborder trade with input from borderland governments hoping to boost local economic growth has been in limbo at Russia’s Federation Council for about six years as of 2016.

Rapid economic rise in the last two decades of the adjacent Chinese borderlands is a telling counterpoint to the developmental sluggishness in the Russian Far East. Exhibit A is the town of Nizhneleninskoe in the Jewish Autonomous District on the Amur River, where economic prospects dimmed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Far East development subsidies, and population shrank from 30,000 in 1991 to 18,000 at present.

Visiting the town in mid-July 2016, Andrew Higgins of The New York Times, wrote: “…the huge steel bridge thrusts out from the Chinese side of the Amur River, stretching more than a mile across the turbid waters that divide the world’s most populous nation from its biggest. Then something strange happens: The bridge abruptly stops, hanging in the air high above the river just short of the Russian shore.”8 If completed, the bridge would shorten the route for shipping the Russian iron ore to a local Chinese steel mill from 646 to 145 miles. The bridge project has enjoyed high-level support from Moscow. But while the Chinese construction companies completed their two-kilometer portion of the bridge in 2014, the Russian companies were yet to start work on 309 meters of their portion of the bridge in mid-2016. The regional government promised at the time the bridge would be completed by June 2018 at the cost of about USD 140mn. Expressing his frustration over this and other construction delays on the Russian side—including the stalling of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline construction—, China’s former ambassador to Russia, Li Fenglin, admonished Russian officials at a May 2016 conference in Moscow: “Don’t just drag your feet. You should start working energetically.”9

Exhibit B is the Transborder Trade and Economic Complex (PTEK) at the juncture of Pogranichnyi and Suifenhe in Primorskii krai. When I interviewed  former vice-governor Vladimir Stegnii in October 2005 he showed me the drawings and blueprints for this PTEK and explained how the Chinese and Russian citizens would be able to drive in there without visas—effectively gaining access to each country’s territory visa- and hassle-free. He saw the reduction in transaction costs as a boost to joint business ventures, shopping, recreation, and education. The complex, he explained, would mutually acculturate the residents of China and Russia’s borderlands and galvanize the expansion of bilateral social and economic relations throughout the Far East and beyond. In June 2015, the officials from China and Russia held an opening ceremony of Phase One of the complex. Yet, as late as October 28, 2016, Vladivostok News was still lamenting that PTEK remained in limbo: “The ribbon-cutting and the festive fanfares did not resolve anything: without changes in rules and regulations [in Moscow], for which political will is needed, this PTEK remains the graveyard of good intentions.”10 Still being required to secure a visa or the services of a tour agency that had a license to operate visa-free, the Russian residents have little rationale to favor PTEK over other locations in China. At the time of this writing, the decision to allow Russians visa-free travel to PTEK was still making its way through a special working group of the Federation Council. This sort of red tape would also explain the stunning cross-border asymmetry of the PTEK—a shopping center in what looks like an office building plus a wooden Orthodox chapel on the Russian side versus on the China side slick shopping streets, high rises, and a palatial 354-guestroom Holiday Inn Suifenhe with a huge artificial lake that could give top Las Vegas properties a run for their money.11

Exhibit C of this developmental lopsidedness is the railroad crossing the border between Zabaikal’sk and Manzhouli. The cities have been developing a joint transborder trade and economic zone, their own PTEK. But the Welcome to China gate now looms about ten times larger than the Welcome to Russia gate across the border. Manzhouli also built a vast Russian-themed shopping and recreation area with а (smaller) replica of St. Basil’s Cathedral, fountains, and ponds, whereas Zabaikal’sk can boast nothing of the kind.

Behind the Thwarted Hopes: The Securitized Tragedy of the Anticommons

Specialists on the region have advanced two principal explanations of the Russian Far East borderland development failures. While they appear to belong in separate compartments, this article argues they are mutually reinforcing. In fact, they expose a negative synergy between theoretical perspectives known as “the tragedy of the anticommons” and the immigration security dilemma. 

The Anticommons       

The tragedy of the anticommons occurs when numerous rights holders claim a single asset or resource, but none of them has an effective privilege of use. As a result, lucrative resources remain underused, and opportunities are missed. In landmark studies, Michael Heller showed how this logic explained patent thickets blocking innovation, robber barons charging river tolls in medieval Germany, and storefronts staying empty amidst bustling street kiosk trade in early post-communist Moscow. “Once an anticommons emerges,” Heller warned, “collecting rights into useful private property bundles can be brutal and slow.” Moreover, the anticommons logic posits that the problem will persist even if “property rights were clearly defined, corruption held in check, and the rule of law respected.”12 In other words, this would explain why economic development of Russia’s Far East borderlands is likely to be “brutal and slow” even if the Kremlin’s “power vertical” system of center-periphery governance worked according to its stated ideal goals. 

In a sophisticated analysis of regional economies in the Russian Far East, Ryzhova, who is based in Blagoveshchensk on the Russia-China border, presents significant evidence that demonstrates the anticommons logic at work (even though she is not using or referring to this conceptual framework). Ryzhova’s study finds the region trapped in a vicious circle of mutually exclusive incentives of key stakeholders tasked with its development. The crux of the matter is excessive central control combined with a multiplicity of federal and local actors. On the one hand, the proximity to Chinese markets raises incentives for Russian businesses to relocate to the border regions. On the other hand, as expectations of benefits from transborder exchanges rise, federal and local government agencies become more interested in extracting rent. This leads to the proliferation of what Ryzhova calls “official robbers,” “unofficial robbers,” as well as decoy traders and smugglers to circumvent them.13 Transaction costs mount and discourage suppliers and traders. Using granular regional economic data focusing, in particular, on interactions between Blagoveshchensk and Heihe, Ryzhova estimated that from 1987 to 2000, traders remained the central actors in transborder exchanges—suggesting that market forces were still dominant in shaping local economic futures. However, the growing centralization under Putin first resulted in the proliferation of decoy traders and then, after 2006, in the rise of “official robbers” to the position at least as lucrative as that of bona fide traders. The proliferation of “official robbers,” however, creates multiple rights claimants—a recipe for the tragedy of the anticommons. On the totality of evidence, Ryzhova found this vicious circle so entrenched that she refrained from any policy recommendations on how to dismantle them.

It is also likely that Moscow’s practice of dispersing investment to satisfy the interests of multiple federal and local stakeholders in the Far East has historically contributed to the anticommons effect. Minakir and Prokapalo identified the “diffuseness” or “atomism” of financial resource allocation as the main cause of failure of every long-term, economic development program in the Russian Far East that the Soviet and Russian governments undertook since the 1930s.14 In January 2016, Minakir warned the Khabarovsk krai legislature that their region’s development strategy through 2030 inherited the problem of earlier federal programs.15

The China Threat Syndrome

Survey data from Primorskii krai indicate that the immigration security dilemma—disproportionally strong fears of migrants arising form the sense of uncertainty about host government capacity to contain, restrain, or manage migration—has remained a potent factor shaping regional mentality and views on interactions with China.16 The resulting threat syndrome manifests itself in two principal ways. First, even though fears of Chinese migration challenging Russia’s sovereignty in the Far East have eased (Figure 1), significant other fears were as strong or stronger in 2013 polling data than in 2000 and 2005:

  • Chinese migration scale has remained highly exaggerated. In 2000 and 2005, most Primorskii residents believed the share of Chinese migrants in the local population was about 20 percent; and in 2013, about 30 percent. Primorskii Migration Service data I reviewed from 1999 to 2005 and Russia’s 2002 and 2010 census data suggest these perceptions exaggerate migration scale into Primorskii krai more than tenfold. (In fact, in 2010 census enumerators identified fewer than 3,000 local residents present in Primorskii krai at the time of the census as ethnic Chinese, or about 0.15 percent of the krai population). Fears of living under China’s “demographic overhang”—a metaphor that Russian analysts coined to warn of the negative consequences of fewer than seven million Russians facing more than 100 million Chinese across the interstate border—appear to have endured.17
  • Concerns over China’s rising military might and armed border clashes with China have become stronger. The military balance has been seen to move irrevocably in China’s favor, and this perception increased more from 2005 to 2013 than from 2000 to 2005. (Figure 2). The number of Primorskii respondents who saw as likely the replay in ten years of violent military conflict such as the one that occurred in 1969 over Zhenbao (Damanskii) Island on the Ussuri River was 38 percent in 2013—a twofold increase from 2005 and about 3 percent more than in 2000.
  • Xenophobic and ethnic prejudice has persisted. According to the 2005 and 2013 polls, about 54 percent of Primorskii residents supported the idea of deporting all migrants—whether legal or illegal—as well as their children. About one half of those respondents said they supported the idea strongly.18 And whereas the number of respondents who completely opposed granting residency rights to the Chinese in Primorskii dropped from 49 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2005, it rebounded to 46 percent in 2013. Rejection of ethnic Chinese as marriage partners—with a prompt that they have the same socioeconomic status as respondents—went up from 80 percent in 2005 to 90 percent in 2013.19 Support for the slogan “Russia for ethnic Russians!” increased from 65 percent to 77 percent.
  • The sense of relative economic loss to China has kept rising. The number of respondents who believed the Chinese benefited more than the Russians from cross-border interactions exceeded the number of respondents who believed the Russians benefited more than the Chinese—by 43 percent in 2000, by 59 percent in 2005, and by 69 percent in 2013.
  • Social contact between the Russians and the Chinese, for the most part, declined. The number of respondents reporting some regular contact with migrants was 84 percent in 2005, but only 61 percent in 2013. This was probably due to fewer respondents buying food or consumer goods from Chinese vendors (reflecting the transition of street markets into shopping malls and hiring local residents as vendors)—close to 80 percent of Primorskii respondents reported buying from the Chinese in 2000, but only 49 percent in 2013.  On another important measure of social contact, the polls saw a decline of the number of Primorskii residents who said they had helped migrants in any form—from 68 percent in 2005 to 72 percent in 2013.

Figure 2. Balance of Military Power Seen as Shifting in China’s Favor (% respondents)
Note: Percentage estimated excluding the missing data.

Second, the reduction in perceived threat with China’s territorial expansion and migration as its tool had a lot to do with a stronger sense of central authority under Putin and the delinking of economic from security aspects of cross-border interactions:

  • While the sense that the Russian government abandoned them declined among Primorskii residents from 2000 to 2013, more of them reported visiting China (see Figure 3 below).
  • Primorskii residents reported rising incomes—enhancing the sense of economic security strongly associated with confidence in central authority (among other things, the 2013 poll showed a strong relationship between respondents’ income and support for Putin). The respondents’ median household income per capita adjusted for inflation went up from 5,750 rubles in 2005 to 17,500 rubles in 2013.20
  • Regression analysis—controlling for perceptions of military balance, migration scale, ethnic distance, relative economic gains, age, gender, and education—showed that the above three factors significantly affected the perceptions of China threat until the positive shifts took place. The sense of isolation from Moscow, frequency of cross-border visits, and family income related to China threats in 2005, but practically not at all in 2013. Travel, in particular, may have calmed perceived migration threats not because travel opened the mind, but as people traveled more frequently, travel came to be viewed as a routine and predominantly socioeconomic issue rather than a security issue. In the 2005 poll, Primorskii residents who reported traveling to China more often than others during the ten years before the survey were more likely to see in Chinese migration a sinister “peaceful infiltration.” As travel to China became widespread by 2013, this relationship disappeared. In 2013, travel had no significant association with any of the three indicators of threat shown above in Figure 1. Neither did income. The sense of isolation related only to perceived intent of the Chinese to colonize Primorskii krai.

Figure 3. Fear of Isolation from Moscow Declines in Primorskii, While More Local Residents Visit China (% respondents)
Note: Percentage estimated excluding the missing data.

These regression results suggest, however, that despite certain positive changes from 2000 to 2013 the China threat syndrome remains tenacious. In particular, the perceived strength of central authority and income mattered in a negative way (when they declined in a society overall, individual fears of China increased)—but not in a positive way (when they improved in a society overall, individual fears of China were not necessarily assuaged). In particular, given the deterioration of economic conditions in Russia in 2014-2016, one would expect alarmist perceptions of China to harden.

Threat and Anticommons: Interaction and Reinforcement

Microcase #1: Territories of Accelerated Socioeconomic Development (TOSER)

In 2015, Russia’s Far East Development Ministry adopted a Federal Target Program for the Economic and Social Development of the Far East and the Lake Baikal Region through 2025. The program—worth about 3.6 trillion rubles (about 60bn US dollars at the November 20, 2016 exchange rate)—set as its number one priority making operational by 2020 16 Territories of Accelerated Socioeconomic Development (TOSER). The program promises significant tax breaks, simplified land use licensing, custom inspection waivers, and other incentives to develop petrochemical industries, construction materials, and food and timber processing industries in the RFE as well as to develop high-tech services.21 This, in theory, addresses precisely the impediments to regional economic development identified by government officials in Primorskii krai and Sakhalin oblast’ whom I interviewed around 1999-2005. Media reports now indicate considerable activity across the RFE in designing TOSER regions, most upbeat and forward looking.

However, two elements embedded in the proposed TOSER initiative—but not addressed in the 2025 development document—have drawn the most criticism as the first TOSERs began to be implemented in the RFE. They cast doubt over the planned outcomes. The first one concerns the anticommons problem, and the second the security threat syndrome.

The source of the anticommons problem is that pushing through TOSER required changes in the Civil, Urban Development, Labor, Land, and Forest Codes of the Russian Federation—which meant raising the incentive to claim a role in any specific TOSER among multiple federal agencies and their local branches. The source of the threat syndrome is the program’s mention of unspecified incentives for bringing in migrant labor and schools for the children of foreign nationals, which resonated with the security threat syndrome. The latter opens the doors for the security establishment—particularly the FSB and the Migration Service—to seek rights in TOSER implementation and oversight. Local media—less censored by Moscow due to its limited reach—offers several telling insights on how a combination of these inputs could frustrate project development.

Kamchatka Express online news and discussion portal, for example, reported Putin’s special envoy to the Far East Federal District, Yuri Trutnev, complaining of what amounts to a textbook manifestation of the anticommons problem in setting up regulations for the Kamchatka TOSER—that includes tourism and the port. “The federal ministries of economics and finance have done a poor job. They deformed the president’s assignment. They thought up a complex mechanism for acquiring the status of a regional investment project and slapped on additional requirements. For one, they set up a term limit for land leasing—and for some unknown reason it is January 1, 2024. Then there is the demand that an investment zone should have… no buildings belonging to any other agency. But what if such a building is there? Should it be knocked down?”22 The insertion of the buildings rule gives the owner agencies a strong incentive to resist takeover, while those interested in developing a territory would have to resolve complex coordination problems—a textbook case of the anticommons.

The Kamchatka governor, Vladimir Ilyukhin, adamantly complained about another problem showing that the anticommons may emerge even when there is no physical object of interagency contention. Agencies seeking to maximize gains from the assets they control may introduce rules “on spec”—just in case something gets developed nearby and they are able to extract rent. Thus, building a highway from Tilichki to Kamenskoe in northern Kamchatka not only faced steep funding challenges, but also a requirement that it should run within a certain distance of a railroad: “Except,” Ilyukhin quipped, “we don’t have railroads here.”23

Local media reports also offer a glimpse on how the threat syndrome reinforces the anticommons problem in Kamchatka. The main port city on the peninsula, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is home to the region’s largest stakeholder in security—the East Arctic Borderguards Directorate of Russia’s Federal Security Service (former KGB) that oversees ships serving all the way in the Chukotka, East Siberian, and Laptev Seas. It is hard to imagine how the proposed enlargement and rebuilding of the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky port could proceed without getting clearances from the FSB agencies.  In fact, the development of cruise ship tourism in Kamchatka—one of the Kamchatka TOSER objectives—gives a preview of these impediments. In an interview with a local online service,, Nikolay Pegin, head of the Kamchatka Krai Development Corporation—one of numerous government controlled agencies set up to leverage state and private funding and manage the TOSER initiatives—revealed that out of the planned 19 cruise ship visits to Petropavlovsk in 2015 only 13 materialized. Getting border service clearances and related interagency coordination resulted in a loss of about one third of prospective cruise business.24 The Kamchatka Express discussion forums on TOSER were bluntly and vehemently pessimistic. In the most frequently cited comment on the port issue, user “strix” wrote: “You say, build a large beautiful port… well, we have already seen many posts here telling you that as long as all kinds of borderguards, the FSBniks, and the customs wield their laws and regulations our ports are not going to be attractive. You can build all you want, build another port of Rotterdam, but who will come here? Plus don’t forget service costs, electricity costs, etc. The Kamchatka port is doomed to stay uncompetitive.”25

Responses to TOSER showed that the threat-animated, general public could also claim exclusive rights to a resource—particularly if it is viewed as valuable and vulnerable. Nationalist writers warned that TOSER-related changes to the federal codes de facto enabled Chinese land ownership and unlimited importation of Chinese migrant labor in the RFE.26 Public protests across the RFE in 2015 disrupted plans to lease 285,000 unused acres of land to a Chinese grain producer.27 An Oscar-winning Russian filmmaker, Nikita Mikhalkov, weighed in with a warning that migration into Russia, if unchecked, would pave the way for a military invasion.28

Microcase #2: The Bridge Over the Amur

The New York Times report on the unfinished Nizneleninskoe bridge across the Amur River revealed telltale signs of the tragedy of the anticommons: “Even the seemingly simple issue of where the bridge’s pillars would stand… stirred a hornet’s nest of arguments between three state landowners in Nizhneleninskoye—the Federal Security Service, the state forestry fund and municipal authorities.” In fact, in describing the “competing bureaucratic, security and financial interests…stalling even strategic projects backed by the Kremlin” as “a thicket,”29 the reporter used the same language as the anticommons scholars do when they refer to patent thickets impeding innovation. Echoing Ryzhova’s analysis, the verdict on the Amur River bridge emphasized the perverse effects of multiple rights holders claiming stakes in developing a valuable resource: “Mr. Putin has strengthened and empowered the Russian state and disciplined it to speak with one voice in public. But its various agencies rarely move in lock step or swiftly, particularly when large sums of money are at stake for well-connected insiders.”30

Explaining the debacle, Viktor Larin highlighted the contribution of “the China threat syndrome” to the anticommons on the Amur. Larin said that critical elites “have not made the turn psychologically” and continued to see China as a potential enemy rather than as a reliable economic partner. “So while the Kremlin has endorsed the bridge, others lower in the Russian government ranks, Mr. Larin said, have stalled, with finance officials in Moscow complaining about the cost and military officers asking, ‘Why build a bridge over which Chinese tanks can come?’”31

Microcase #3: The Far Eastern Hectare

Uncertainty-based fears are part and parcel of the anticommons. If rights holders see a resource as lucrative in the long term but lack funds to develop it, they would be apprehensive that better-endowed actors could emerge and claim the resource. This is very much the story of Moscow’s perennial fears of Chinese landownership in the RFE. As Primorskii governor general (1888-1898) Pavel Untenberger stated: “I prefer this land to be a Russian desert rather than a Chinese oasis.” As Russia’s then first deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev warned in 2005: “If we do not develop toward the East, there will be no united Russia… cold and devastation will rule our Far East. Or, it will be developed by someone other than us.”32

A most telling recent manifestation of Moscow’s efforts to solve this dilemma is its “Far Eastern Hectare” program to hand out 100 square yards a person in designated Far Eastern counties to would-be pioneers. Local residents could apply since June 1, 2016. All Russian citizens are eligible starting February 1, 2017.33 Yet, while conceived as a demographic and economic bulwark to putative Chinese settlement, the program ran into the anticommons trap from the outset. Diagnostic evidence came from Primorskii krai, where the Khankaisk county executive, Vladimir Mishchenko, told The New York Times in mid-2016 that “while the area might look empty…nearly all the land is already owned or at least claimed by somebody.” Mishchenko’s list of those “somebodies” reveals powerful rights claimants: the water authority, municipal governments, the border service (part of the FSB), the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, and the forest service.34

A posting on (formerly—a popular Russian analytic website for the most part editorially independent from the Kremlin—represented a widespread concern: “Owning land sounds good in theory, but in practice without roads and utilities…land is a worthless asset in the modern world. Instead of happy life, the owners of those free acres will be treading on the doormats of government agencies begging them to at least put through the power lines to their places…Granted, it is possible that in a couple of years we will be shown an idyllic commune of the Far Eastern Robinson Crusoes, but the whole point of its existence—as is the whole point of the free hectares initiative—will be to give the media something the authorities could brag about.”35

In sum, rather than solving the anticommons problem, the Kremlin outsourced it to individuals and framed this outsourcing as a patriotic act to rise up to the China threat.


The Russian Far East is in a double bind. First, uprooting the anticommons problem would require stripping multiple and powerful federal agencies of their turf claims. But because such restrictions stand to weaken the Kremlin’s power vertical—while the China threat syndrome makes political decentralization look risky—, the Kremlin is unlikely to undertake major institutional reform.  Second, while the anticommons mechanisms are, thus, likely to remain in place—at least for the duration of the current leadership—the continuation of economic investment from Moscow into RFE development cannot be taken for granted. Larin in a 2013 study presents convincing evidence that since the middle of the 19th century the Kremlin would only make a push to develop the Russian Far East “when one or several events came to be perceived in Moscow as a threat to its territorial possessions on the Pacific.”36 Larin documented each major push, occurring every 25-30 years and lasting about 8-10 years.37

When one considers the RFE’s economic development prospects, the realistic choice is between the Amur anticommons with major investment from Moscow and the Amur anticommons without investment from Moscow. The former is likely to be wasteful but generate some growth in certain sectors and locations in the RFE. The second is likely to engender developmental stagnation and decline. Meanwhile, with the current policies in place, the success of RFE development will continue to depend on how much time and reputational capital Putin will devote to micromanaging regional issues in such a way as to reduce the turf-guarding behavior in the RFE of the very institutions—Russia’s “new nobility”—that have sustained his hold on power over the last sixteen years.38

1. Vitaly Vorobyov, “Russian-Chinese Confidence-Based Strategic Partnership: A Formula for the Twenty-First Century,” International Affairs (Moscow) 62, no. 4 (2016): 87-96.

2.   “Russian-Chinese Trade Plummets in 2015,” The Moscow Times, January 13, 2016,

3. Kirill Tochkov, “Cross-Border Trade And Integration Between Russia And China: An Interdisciplinary Perspective,” Prostranstvennaia Ekonomika no. 4 (2014): 170-178.

4. Yevgenii Nazdratenko, I vsia Rossiia za spinoi… (Vladivostok: Ussuri, 1999), 20-24.

5. All surveys were based on multistage probability sampling and face-to-face interviews. The results in the 2000 and 2005 Vladivostok subsamples are consistent with the 2013 survey across the key variables.

6. Minvostokrazvitiia, “Федеральная целевая программа экономическое и социальное развитие Дальнего Bостока и Байкальского региона на период до 2025 года’” (Moscow: Minvostokrazvitiia, 2015), 5.

7. Ibid., 6-8.


9. Ibid.



12. Michael Heller, "The Tragedy of the Anticommons: Property in the Transition from Marx to Markets," Harvard Law Review 111, no. 3 (1998): 622-23. Also see Michael Heller, The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives (New York: Basic Book, 2008).

13. Natalia P. Ryzhova, Economic Integration of Border Regions (Khabarovsk: ERI
FEB RAS, 2013), 273-275.

14. Pavel Minakir and Olga Prokapalo, “Development Programs and Strategies: The Russian Far East,” Far Eastern Affairs 39, no. 4 (2011): 121-135.


16. Mikhail Alexseev, Immigration Phobia and the Security Dilemma: Russia, Europe, and the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

17. P. Ia. Baklanov, “Geograficheskie, sotsial’no-ekonomicheskie i geopoliticheskie faktory migratsii Kitaiiskogo naseleniia v raiony Rossiiskogo Dal’nego Vostoka,” Paper presented at the Roundtable, “Prospects for the Far East Region: The Chinese Factor,” Institute of History, Archeology, and Ethnography of the Far Eastern Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladivostok, June 28, 1999.

18. The question was not asked the same way in 2000.

19. Answering a differently formulated question in 2000, about 41 percent of respondents supported banning marriages between the Russian and Chinese nationals, almost half of them strongly (“3” on a 3-point scale).

20. Based on historical inflation rates calculator at:

21. Minvostokrazvitiia, “Федеральная целевая программа, 82, 24.


23. Ibid.



26. Reported on Neiromir-TV, “Сдача Российской властью, РОССИИ – Китаю” YouTube, July 29, 2015. 

27. Andrew Higgins, “Russia’s Acres, if Not Its Locals, Beckon Chinese Farms,” The New York Times, July 31, 2016,

28. Trofimova and Anna Kuligina, “Китайский тупик,” Zabaikalsk TV; Nikita Mikhalkov, “Россиянам настойчиво внушают чувство вины” Besogon TV, Moscow, Rossiia 24 TV on YouTube, June 11, 2016.

29. Andrew Higgins, “An Unfinished Bridge, and Partnership, Between Russia and China” The New York Times, July 16, 2016,

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.


33. https://надальнийвосток.рф/.


35. Most responses to the free acres program on the local RFE webforums make the same point, and the most adamant of them are unquotable due to their language.

36. Viktor Larin, “Vneshniaia ugroza kak dvizhushchaiia sila osvoieniia i razvitiia tikhookeanskoi Rossii” (Moscow Carnegie Center, 2013), 5.

37. Ibid.

38. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, “Russia’s New Nobility,” Foreign Affairs 89,  no. 5 (2010): 80-96.