Russia Can't Afford To Choose Between East and West

If it wants to grow in a balanced way, Russia should not think a rash of new agreements with China will permit it to forsake the West.

Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Barack Obama in 2014
Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Barack Obama in 2014
Fedor Lukyanov


MOSCOW â€" The Cold War was always described as being between "the East and the West." The terms were geographical, but they were understood to include political and ideological differences. It's curious that although it was a worldwide conflict, the geographic root for the names of the different sides was purely European.

Now, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the strongest symbol of East vs. West, there seems to be a new wall forming, somewhere through the contested Ukrainian region of Donbass. But the division between East and West is moving further east.

Does this mean that the world is destined to become more isolated, or that Ukraine's conflict will spread like a domino effect? No. If the mechanisms currently in place to control the Ukrainian conflict are sufficient, Ukraine will become nothing but a sideshow. And that's related to the fact that today's political East now corresponds to the geographic East â€" Asia, led by China, which is now self-confident in contrast to years past.

There is another "East" too â€" the Middle East, divided into segments and falling ever deeper into hopeless chaos. The forces in the Middle East are factors in world politics, but they are not primary actors.

Russia has always liked to juggle the East and West roles, trying to adopt postures that fall somewhere between the two political and cultural poles. But in the past 300 years, Russia has never genuinely managed to position itself "between." Before the 20th century, Russia was an undisputed player in greater European politics, while China did not yet represent a world power. During the 20th century, Russia became part of the East.

But now Russia is clearly playing its desired role of the go-between. The country refused to become part of the West, as some thought it would during the 1990s. But neither did it become part of the East, as it became obvious that it would be impossible to call the shots in the land of the rising sun. Modern Asia is also much more clearly defined culturally â€" and concentrated around China, which doesn't feel natural to Russia.

Positioning itself between two major political poles opens many opportunities, but it also carries dangers. Suggestions that Russia will just become China's colony, a source for raw materials, and will lose its independence are politically motivated. For some reason, being a source of raw materials for the European Union is considered a valid route towards development, while for some reason doing the same for China would mean oblivion for Russia.

No stepchild

It's almost always taken for granted that in any China-Russia partnership, Russia is destined to be the stepchild, because China's economy is several times larger. But even though that's also the case with Russia and Europe, Russia's diplomatic abilities have ensured that it isn't treated as less-than.

The Trans-Siberian railroad near the China-Russia border. Photo: Kyle Taylor

In terms of political pressure, China, in contrast to the European Union and the United States, also never tries to pressure other countries about how they should manage their domestic affairs. The West is certain that it has the best system, and that it should be applied everywhere. China, on the other hand, is certain that it is unique, and that its culture is so complex that it's pointless to try to make other countries conform to its ideas. China is more pragmatic in its relationship with other countries. It just wants money properly invested, and the rest is your business.

In truth, Russia and China haven't worked closely together for a long time, and the last time they did so was when the roles where reversed â€" when the Soviet Union was China's mentor. The active phase of working together is just beginning.

Contrary to what's being claimed in oversimplified commentaries, Russia is not choosing between the East and the West. In today's world, you don't choose between two powers; you add. This false choice is best illustrated by considering what happened in Ukraine. There were years of needless debate about "who are we with â€" Europe or Russia?" That ultimately led to the fall of the government and the current unrest. Now everyone, even the most ardent nationalists, understands that the country will only be able to develop if it fosters relationships with both Europe and Russia.

Russia doesn't have a choice between East and West, because it needs both to grow in a balanced way. But there's another reason that there isn’t a choice. First of all, Russia's pivot to the East has been late and slow. Secondly, China has made a turn towards the West.

Specifically, China is turning to Eurasia, hoping to gain market share in Europe and the Mediterranean region and feeling an acute need to stabilize its own western areas. It's also looking for a new Silk Road, a fast and cheap route into Europe.

For Russia, the pivot to the East is absolutely essential. Things would be much better if it had started years ago, when people first began talking about it. Now Russia is certainly part of China's pivot West. The question is whether Russia will be just a transit country, a way for Chinese goods to travel to Europe, or whether it will be strong enough to take advantage of growth in both the East and the West.

*Fedor Lukyanov is the editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Politics.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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