Vladivostok: From sealed fortress to window on Asia


VLADIVOSTOK, U.S.S.R. -- Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who suggested two years ago that this closed port city become a 'window on the East,' is widening the opening in hopes of tapping the burgeoning Pacific rim economic market.

Foreign specialists and Soviet officials met here last week in a symbolic forum to demonstrate the change in the city whose name in Russian means 'ruler of the east.'


Behind the symbolism, however, is Kremlin concern that the sparsely populated Soviet Far East will not plug itself into the burgeoning Pacific rim market, dominated by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

As economist Valery Zaitsev put it, 'We mustn't miss the train, which is picking up speed.'

The mineral-rich Soviet Far East, occupying 26 percent of the country's land area and 10 times the size of Texas, has only 8 million people, 2.6 percent of the population. Yet it provides 40 percent of high quality timber exports and a third of the nation's fish.

The centrally planned economy directed from far away Moscow has treated the area like a huge mine and aquarium for exports.

'If we follow this trend, we may find ourselves in economic isolation after the year 2000 and may have to hope for only sporadic links with this or that market' in the Pacific rim, said Pavel Minakir, an economist with the Far Eastern branch of the Academy of Sciences.


Reopening Vladivostok more than half a century after Stalin clamped it shut represents an attempt by Gorbachev to project the Soviet Union into Asian diplomacy after years of neglect as former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko concentrated on the United States and Europe.

Any reduction of tensions in Asia could also help Gorbachev divert funds from guns and troops to carrying out his domestic economic reform program.

Gorbachev foreshadowed the opening two years ago in a Vladivostok speech in which he called for confidence-building measures in Asia and ruling out the use of force in the region.

Last month he built upon the initiative, proposing more economic independence from Moscow and special economic duty-free zones for the Soviet Far East.

The 107 guests from 35 nations, who attended the Vladivostok forum last week, heard the rising star of Soviet diplomacy, Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Rogachev, explain 'our new deal in the Asian Pacific region.'

'The ultimate goal of Soviet foreign policy in the Asian Pacific region is to establish a durable and comprehensive system of stable and independent cooperation among the region's countries and peoples,' he said.

He noted that Soviet troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan, some troops had been pulled from Mongolia in the Far East, Soviet-allied Vietnam is removing some troops from Cambodia, and relations with China were on the upswing.


He even talked about the possibility of a Gorbachev summit with Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader, as early as next year.

As with a potential Sino-Soviet summit, which the Kremlin has long sought, the Kremlin's foray into Asia may not bear fruit for a long time.

But the Soviet Union has often demonstrated the necessary diplomatic patience.

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