Russia’s Ulyanovsk region highlights limits of Sino-Russian relations
ULYANOVSK, Russia – From large gas projects to closer military cooperation and improving bilateral trade which reached a record high of over $ 110 billion in 2019, Sino-Russian relations have reached new heights.
But in Ulyanovsk, a region some 850 kilometers east of Moscow, another portrait of Sino-Russian ties emerges.
The city of 1.2 million people – and the wider region of the same name – is home to a growing array of local China-related initiatives that have been pushed against the backdrop of warming high-level relations between Beijing and Moscow.
At the local level, this has included deepening trade ties, a booming tourism sector, and future infrastructure deals – including plans for a China-funded highway project across Russia that aims to linking Europe to western China.
There have been strong statements from local officials about expanding ties with China and the eagerness of Chinese investors to explore opportunities across Russia.
But much of the cooperation in Ulyanovsk only exists on paper – frozen due to budget issues and border restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unpacking this complex dynamic is at the center of a recent series of the Tatar-Bashkir service of RFE / RL. He closely examines the ties between the two countries on the ground.
Through interviews with local officials, activists and experts, the Ulyanovsk region is seen as a potential future location for China’s economic footprint to grow in Russia.
But this development faces a setback from local residents. There are also difficulties in translating the agreements into concrete projects on the ground, despite the partnership’s endorsement at the highest level.
“Relations with Europe and the West are strained and the Russian economy, in my opinion, needs cooperation because national production is poorly established,” says Vitaly Kuzin, member of the Communist Party who sits in the Assembly. Legislative Assembly of Ulyanovsk Oblast. .
“China is a powerhouse for the world economy, so our country must deepen its cooperation,” Kuzin said.
All roads lead to China
Relations between China and Russia have improved markedly since 2014, when the Kremlin said it would look to Asia following Western economic sanctions over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the role of the Russia in the war in eastern Ukraine.
The deepening of the relationship is best seen in the interactions between the leaders of the two countries: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
They have met more than 30 times since 2013, with Xi even calling the Russian president a his best friend” at a summit in 2019.
These ties have fueled a wave of deals since 2014, mostly related to Chinese investments in Russian extractive resources, such as its lucrative oil and gas sector.
But in recent years, Beijing has also started to cautiously monitor other sectors. He has invested in high-tech industries and increasingly uses Russia to transport goods to and from Europe.
In Ulyanovsk, which is on the European side of Russia, local authorities have attempted to expand their ties with China.
In 2020, the first direct train from China arrived in the region. Its 53 container cars transported a mix of auto parts and industrial equipment to Russia, then returned to China with a shipment of grain and sunflower oil.
The region is also home to a Sino-Russian Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Founded in 2019, it received a modest investment of $ 1.5 million to start building a local tech hub.
But many local officials told RFE / RL’s Tatar-Bashkir service that restrictions brought about by the pandemic have frozen this nascent cooperation at the local level.
In February 2020, Russia adopted strict border measures with China to curb the coronavirus epidemic. Beijing has also restricted travel to China following several local outbreaks linked to travelers from Russia.
“Travel on this railway has stopped since the start of the pandemic and the border closings, and has not started since,” said Tatyana Fadeeva, spokesperson for the Regional Development Corporation. Ulyanovsk, in the Tatar-Bashkir department of RFE / RL. “We have no information on the resumption of movement.”
Vladimir Kazantsev, an independent sociologist in Ulyanovsk, said the frozen transport links, as well as the obstacles and limits to bringing in large sums of Chinese investment, highlight the disparity between deepening political cooperation and Russian-Chinese military and the realities of more remote areas. .
“It is not profitable to build production [in Russia] in order to bring finished products to China, ”Kazantsev told RFE / RL. “The economy doesn’t add up.
One area that has seen prolonged growth in recent years is tourism between China and the Ulyanovsk region. An increasing number of Chinese visitors are flocking to the region due to its historical significance as the birthplace of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.
The so-called “red tourism” in China, where tourists visit places of historical significance to Chinese communism, has been a priority promoted by Beijing in recent decades.
In 2014, a formal cooperation between the Chinese and Russian governments was established to attract more tourists to Russia.
Due to its links with Lenin, Ulyanovsk became a focal point for this type of tourism.
During a visit to Ulyanovsk in 2013, Shao Qiwei, then chairman of China’s National Tourism Administration, called the city “the beginning of China’s red history.”
Since 2015, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Ulyanovsk has increased by 20 to 30 percent every year, according to the local tourism board.
Overall figures remain modest, however, with around 7,000 Chinese visitors passing through Ulyanovsk on tours along Russia’s so-called “red route” – which includes historic sites in Kazan, St. Petersburg and Moscow, and is expected expand to Yekaterinburg, Perm, Samara, Ufa and Krasnoyarsk.
Expanding these links remains difficult as the pandemic has largely frozen the growth of tourism from China to the region. In fact, official statistics show an 86% drop in total tourism since 2020.
Despite these obstacles, many local officials see great potential in communist-related tourism from China and are pushing for more investment in the sector.
Aleksei Kurinny, Communist Party member of the Russian State Duma from the Ulyanovsk region, told RFE / RL that although investment with China is difficult to attract, tourism in the region has untapped potential. .
“Investing in the tourism industry and attracting more Chinese tourists is not yet fully developed,” Kurinny said. “We plan to move in this direction as the main area of cooperation with China.”
Navigate in a new era
This leaves deepening cooperation with China in the Ulyanovsk region at a difficult crossroads as ties continue to flourish between the Kremlin and Beijing.
Kurinny is worried about the amount of direct investment his region may attract from China.
He says he aims to attract projects focused on industries higher up the supply chain, pointing out how his party opposed the plan to build a Chinese cement plant in Ulyanovsk over environmental concerns.
“The region is interested in high-tech production today, something that can contribute to its high-tech development and not just aim to dig up something,” Kurinny said.
It is for these reasons that Igor Toporkov, a human rights activist based in Ulyanovsk, is skeptical of the possibility of the region becoming a regional hub for Chinese economic growth.
“There are a few isolated projects, but I don’t think there will be a big Chinese expansion in the Ulyanovsk region,” Toporkov told RFE / RL.
Still, there are attempts to move the big plans forward.
In November 2020, plans were announced to build a highway through Ulyanovsk that would serve as an important transit route for shipping goods between China and Europe via Russia.
The project received high level support. But RFE / RL found that there had been little public discussion of the plans and that several legal procedures had been bypassed.
This raised concerns about environmental risks during construction and how residents near the planned road route could be impacted.
“Due to the lack of public discussions, the rights of the inhabitants of these settlements close to the road crossing are being violated,” said Aleksandr Nikolaev, a lawyer from neighboring Chuvashia who focuses on transport issues.