Vladivostok and the Soviet Far East: Still Closed, or Open for Business?

WHEN Nikita Khrushchev landed here on his way back from his 1959 tour of the United States, he brashly declared, as was his fashion, that this picturesque port city would be ``the second San Francisco.'' Vladivostok shares the hills and vistas of its twin across the Pacific, but the residents of this city are still awaiting the promised bounty of being Russia's window onto Asia and the Pacific.

Since the beginning of the cold war, Vladivostok's window has been mostly shut. As the headquarters of the Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok has been an officially ``closed'' city. Until two years ago, both foreigners and Soviet citizens were barred for reasons of military security.

At the same time, Soviet merchant seamen have freely plied the Pacific, carrying timber, coal, minerals, and fish to foreign ports. They have brought back pieces of the capitalist world - fashionable clothes for their wives and second-hand Japanese cars - that are still rare in the ``open'' cities of Moscow and Leningrad.

The security regime meant however that Vladivostok, by far the largest port in the Soviet Pacific, had to play second fiddle to others. Japanese airlines fly into the Far Eastern Siberian city of Khabarovsk, where Japanese trading companies have their outpost offices. Foreign vessels all call at the port of Nakhodka, about 75 miles north of Vladivostok.

Under pressure from the citizens of the region, the security wall has started cracking in the past two years. Foreigners, including businessmen in increasing numbers, are allowed into the city for conferences and sporting events.

In a 1986 speech here, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev promised a massive five-year development program for the Soviet Far East and promoted relations with Asian neighbors to help accomplish this.

``Now four years after the Vladivostok speech, we are still talking, but where are the benefits from this?'' Vladimir Lukin, an Asian specialist who heads the Soviet parliament's Foreign Affairs committee, asked rhetorically at a recent conference here.

Vladivostok's closed status, experts here say, has frustrated the development of the Maritime Region, the coastal province of the Soviet Far East. Although Tokyo is less than a two-hour flight away, the directors of Vladivostok enterprises often have to fly to Moscow, nine hours to the West, to make deals with Japanese businessmen. The central ministries in Moscow also decide how to dispose of the region's resources.

``The Maritime Region is part of the Asia-Pacific region, and we must use that fact,'' says Rafik Aliyev, the head of the Far Eastern Branch of the Academy of Sciences. ``We must redirect our targets from the West, from Moscow, to the East, to Tokyo, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Otherwise we will never get out of a feudal relationship with Moscow.''

A wide array of businessmen have already come to scout out prospects in the city, from the giant United States Bechtel Corporation and Japanese trading firms to a host of South Korean companies, the latest and most enthusiastic visitors.

From Mr. Gorbachev on down, promises have come from Moscow to fully ``open'' Vladivostok. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze repeated that pledge at the conference here on Sept. 4. But officials are skeptical. ``After his speech, I was trying to persuade him to be more decisive,'' says Vladimir Kuznetsov, a charismatic academic who recently became governor of the Maritime Region.

The citizens of the region are looking instead to Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic's parliament, to heed their calls. ``Mr. Yeltsin is a bolder man,'' says Kuznetsov. ``He is ready to open the city, maybe from Jan. 1 or March 1 next year. On Sept. 19, at its first session of the fall, the city council voted unanimously to give free access and residence to citizens of any country, appealing to the Russian parliament to ratify their decision. The parliament has already made the Maritime area a free enterprise zone, offering special terms for foreign companies.

Kuznetsov has bold plans. He dreams of direct international flights to Seoul, Osaka, and ``someday to San Francisco,'' and of building hotels for Japanese tourists and a foreign trade center. At least one eager partner has already arrived. Kiyoshi Kaneko, the governor of Japan's Niigata Prefecture across the Japan Sea, came last week and signed an agreement to establish regional links, including opening passenger shipping and then air service, along with increased trade. Soon, Kuznetsov says, ``We will make Vladivostok the real business capital of the Far East region.''

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