“The most wonderful grassland in the world”

From a conversation with Edward Luttwak published by the Wall Street Journal in March 2020:

Ranching has been more than an investment. It has helped him understand the fundamental weakness of post-Soviet Russia. “Between Vladivostok and the North Korean border, there is the most wonderful grassland in the world,” he says. “I wanted to go there and bring some angus cattle.”

That’s news to me. The Trans-Baikal District and Buryatia are well known for their cattle but here Luttwak is talking about a very different climate zone. By Russian standards, Vladivostok is deep south: 43°N, slightly south of Sochi and about the latitude of Concord, New Hampshire. However, its climate is rather cold for its latitude. Winters are frosty and relatively dry under Siberian influence. Summers are cool and rainy because of Pacific monsoons. That could be the reason for the rich vegetation – the “wonderful grassland.” Spring comes late but the first half of the fall is often warm and pleasant.

He met with Vladivostok’s governor in 2017.

“He says to me, ‘You should go talk to this guy who is an agriculture expert.’ ” The “expert” eventually made clear “that the only way that I could do this investment was by giving a 70% share to his friends.”

For about two decades the regional (Maritime Territory) government in Vladivostok had a reputation of being corrupt even by Russian standards. The man who was governor 2001-12 – first elected by the locals, then re-appointed by Moscow – was rumored to be literally a mafia boss. However, in 2012 Putin appointed a governor from outside the Far East and with no background in government in order to “de-criminalize” Vladivostok. Judging by Luttwak’s experience, it didn’t quite work. In 2018, a new governor was appointed, then elected…

Mr. Luttwak says he replied: “I went to school in Palermo, Sicily, and I see now that Russia badly needs to have technical assistance from Sicily — to learn how to do extortion properly.” Such clumsy corruption kept him from investing in the country.

That’s a good point – but if Putin’s political system weren’t so corrupt, Russia might have actually built the deadly weapons Putin had boasted of.

The Honored Society, according to Luttwak himself, wasn’t all that conducive to economic development either:

… the society was itself strangling Sicily’s economy by strangling competition: all the salt pans of the province of Trapani, and all the Partinico plants that distil ethyl alcohol from grapes… were and are each under one monopolistic owner. Many villages could only have one bar – or none in places where the pizzo was set too high.

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