Applying for a Russian visa is no light-hearted affair. The Russians want to know the (full) name and phone number of your supervisor at your previous two places of employment. They ask for the names and phone numbers of where you went to school ("all educational institutions you ever attended, except high schools"). Moreover, the application demands that you list "all countries you have visited in the last ten years and indicate the year of visit." You're also expected to list the charities, "civil" organizations, and professional groups to which you've belonged or even contributed.
There's a list of questions about whether you're a convict, nutcase, druggie, or disease carrier. If you want to stay more than three months, you have to take an AIDS test. The Russians also want to know if you've served in the military, fought in a war, or "have any specialized skills, training or experience related to fire-arms and explosives or to nuclear, biological or chemical activities?"
But there's one bit of good news. At Russia's visa office in Washington, D.C., at least, there's no line.
When I showed up one Friday with my application, I went straight to the window. When I came back in the afternoon to pick up my visa, there were just four of us waiting for the office to reopen.
The visa room is minuscule. Two chairs sit behind a small table. If you filled the rest of the room, the crowd would number about 20 standing shoulder to shoulder. There just aren't a lot of Americans seeking to jet off to Russia.
It's too bad, really, since Russia is a fascinating nation with a venerable culture and many magnificent sites to see. But after surviving chaotic and whirlwind economic and political changes since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Moscow appears to be moving in a more authoritarian, nationalistic direction.
Whether or not President Vladimir Putin is busy poisoning every Russian expatriate who's ever breathed a critical word about him, the central political authorities are exerting themselves domestically: local elective officials are being appointed, businessmen are being intimidated, and independent voices are being suppressed. Russia remains a world away from Soviet communism, but it also appears to be moving away from liberal democracy. Russia's economic recovery centers around high oil prices, rather than market-oriented reforms. As energy prices soften, entrepreneurial opportunities for foreigners may shrink.
A FEW BLOCKS AWAY in Washington is the Chinese visa office. While the Russian operation is located in an embassy building, the Chinese have leased commercial space.
China offers foreigners a warmer welcome. The Chinese charge half as much, $50 for a normal application, and less than a third as much, $80 compared to $300, for same day service. The application is simpler, with one page instead of two. Surprisingly, there are no -- nada -- obnoxious, silly, and unnecessary questions. (I mean, what does where you went to college three decades ago have to do with visiting the country in 2006?) The visas also last longer -- being valid for six months rather than one month.
The Chinese have a genuine waiting room. Two or three dozen chairs are set in rows. Grabbing a number is a must; when I foolishly arrived on a Monday I found a mob scene, standing room only. The wait was more than an hour. The security guard suggested coming on Wednesdays, when the delay typically was shortest. At least the pick-up line moved more quickly.
The activity of China's visa office mirrors the dynamism of China's society. China, too, is filled with fascinating destinations, and possesses a more exotic air than does Russia. The latter was part of Europe for more than a century prior to the Cold War. China's culture is more ancient and more different than anything most Americans have seen.
But the People's Republic of China has something more to offer. Unlike Russia, the PRC is an energy consumer rather than a producer. China is growing faster, however, with its rapid expansion coming from new manufacturing enterprises rather than old natural resource deposits.
The latter are valuable, but finite: many Russian oil fields are long past peak production and even newer sites will top out in the next few years. There are more resources to be discovered, but Russia is relying so heavily on its oil industry because most of its industrial sectors are so weak. Such dependence is likely to be to Moscow's long-term detriment.
China's economic future, in contrast, almost certainly is brighter, since the Communist Party remains committed, despite its desire to hang on to power, to market-oriented liberalization. The only seeming limit to the PRC's development is the extent of Chinese brainpower, which is substantial. There are still things that could go wrong for China -- the banking system is overextended and unreformed, nationalism could overwhelm economic good sense, the shift from rural to urban life has created social unrest, and future political developments remain uncertain. However, Chinese entrepreneurship has been released by the collapse of Maoism and is unlikely to be easily confined again.
FINALLY, CHINA IS THE MORE important geopolitical player. Moscow possesses nuclear weapons and energy resources, useful but limited tools. Moscow can provide aid to or cause trouble for America in various international forums; still, it now is at most a regional rather than a global leader. Russia's influence is waning and that trend seems likely to continue.
In contrast, Beijing's star is ascending. China possesses the world's largest population, a rapidly growing economy, increased influence throughout the Asia-Pacific, new investments in Africa and Latin America, and more.
The U.S.-China relationship also is more important than America's ties to Russia. The former is characterized by numerous areas of potential cooperation as well as significant potential pitfalls. If North Korea is restrained, it will be as a result of joint U.S. and Chinese efforts. If East Asia, the globe's most economically dynamic region, enjoys political stability, it will be because Washington and Beijing have reached a modus vivendi.
There once were two international poles: the U.S. and Russia. Despite manifold challenges, America remains the globe's dominant power.
The old Soviet Union, however, is long gone and Russia, despite its recent oil-driven revival, represents the past. If Moscow proves unwilling to accept the challenges and opportunities that arise naturally from capitalist and democratic reforms, it risks becoming an international backwater.
China is not yet a superpower, but it has embraced sufficient liberal changes to become the likeliest new pole in the international order. What that means for the people of Asia and elsewhere remains to be seen. But the changing global balance helps explain the dynamics of the two visa offices, so close in geography but so different in operation.
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