Post-Soviet Timber Use: Regional Impacts of Changing Russian Forest Regulations


By John Simeone

Russia contains almost one-quarter of the world’s forests, exceeding the combined forest area of Brazil and Canada. During the Soviet era, intensive forestry practices led to high outputs and sustained production of timber for the domestic and export markets alike through the late 1980s. While Gorbachev’s reforms in the late 1980s instigated attempts at market liberalization, it was not until the collapse of the USSR in 1991 that a global interest in Russia’s bounty of natural resources emerged. Today’s timber harvest levels in Russia still lag behind production levels in the mid-1980s. The forests of Russia are vast. Yet, there are significant obstacles to the development of a sustainable forestry sector in Russia including aging infrastructure, low processing capacity, poor transportation networks, poor financial and judicial institutional quality, and widespread corruption. All have been well documented in academic literature, governmental memorandum and industry publications.

Russian territory spans nine time zones. The majority of freight is transported across Russia via airplane or train; however timber is too heavy for flight. Thus, timber in Russia is usually transported by rail, but expense and a limited track network severely limit the geographic extent to which timber can travel cost-effectively. While this issue is not unique to the forestry sector, wood is particularly heavy and without a robust transportation network for freight, the extremely high transportation costs split the Russian timber supply in two: Eastern and Western markets. Economically speaking, Russia experiences significant market segmentation. European Russia and Western Siberia have large tracts of forest and are situated in close geographic proximity to Europe, allowing these regions to supply Scandinavian and European markets. Eastern Siberian and the Russian Far East are also heavily forested and are closely linked via rail with Asian markets.

The Russian government has used many types of policy instruments to achieve multiple objectives since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russian national and sub-national policies are, of course, critical to the structure of resource use and management. However, the impacts of federal policies across the Russian landscape are diverse, even within the same industry. This paper investigates changes in post-Soviet forest policies and how these policies affect eastern and western Russia differently.

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