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Russia's far East - A bridge to Asia, or to nowhere?

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Sept. 3, 2012, 1:49 p.m. | Russia and former Soviet Union — by Reuters

Vladimir Lenin's vision of developing Russia's far east would not be out of place in President Vladimir Putin's talking points for the Asia-Pacific summit he is hosting this week in the Pacific port of Vladivostok.
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Reuters

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - Vladimir Lenin's vision of developing Russia's far east would not be out of place in President Vladimir Putin's talking points for the Asia-Pacific summit he is hosting this week in the Pacific port of Vladivostok. 

"We will propose that capital from developed countries construct a super-highway between London, Moscow,Vladivostok and Beijing," said the plan, endorsed in 1922 by the Soviet revolutionary leader. "We will tell them that it will open up the untold riches of Siberia."

Ninety years on, the Kremlin has redecorated Russia's window on the east in the hope of improving its image in the eyes of investors from the world's fastest-growing region, and reviving its flagging popularity among hard-pressed locals.

Tsarist Russia completed a 9,300-km (5,800-mile) rail line to Vladivostok in record time, only to fall to the Bolsheviks a year later. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was inspired to develop the city by a visit to San Francisco, another Pacific city on a bay, in 1959.

Now, Russia has pumped $21 billion into its eastern seaboard to attract investors, tourists and gamblers fromAsia, and persuade locals to halt the drift away from a city that, for all the grand designs, remains largely isolated from the rest of the world's largest country.

Putin, 59, underscored a strategic pivot away from crisis-hit Europe to the rising economies of the Pacific rim by creating a government department for developing Russia's far east after his return to the Kremlin for a third term in May.

But in Vladivostok, a city of 600,000 where the clocks run seven hours ahead of Moscow, the injection of capital has done little to lift the low regard in which many locals hold the leader who has dominated Russia since 2000.

Although the city - whose name translates as 'Ruler of the East' - has received a makeover, with a new airport, bridges and highway intersections, residents say inflated contracts were won by insiders and the money would have been better spent on social services and housing.

"I don't associate it with Putin. They took ages to get round to building the bridge," said 28-year-old biologistYevgeny Skorkin, joining thousands of people on a mass stroll last month over the new bridge across the Zolotoi Rog (Golden Horn) inlet that opens up a vista across the city's port and the ships of Russia's Pacific Fleet in the harbour.

"CENTRE OF THE WORLD"

Local artists fantasised at the start of the last century about a bridge that would connect two remote districts ofVladivostok, but the project remained a dream until Putin found $500 million in the budget to build it.

"Only now are we starting to live. We are creating a European city. The centre of the world is here!" enthusedVladivostok's mayor, Igor Pushkaryov, in a conversation with this reporter on the bridge, just as fog started to roll in.

The centre of Vladivostok is quiet of an evening, but is at least well lit - in contrast to the murk of the 1990s when the city was plagued by power cuts. Laser cannons mounted atop the bridge pylons play against the night sky. But the foreign eateries and cafes that dot cities in Russia's European heartland, like McDonalds and Starbucks, are nowhere to be seen.

Eyeing a second term, the 37-year-old former businessman hopes that the attention of Russia's leaders will not fade after the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this weekend: "We really want this relationship to continue. We are happy people - we did it!"

Such positive sentiments are not shared by all.

"Nobody experiences particularly warm emotions," regional lawmaker Artyom Samsonov says of his fellow easterners' attitude towards Putin, who in a national television question-and-answer show in 2007 promised new investments to halt the depopulation of the Primorye region as people sought work elsewhere.

Five years after Putin's volley of promises, the young, educated people of Vladivostok are still leaving, while the city can boast another trophy of regional development - a second bridge built at a cost of $1 billion.

Leaders will sweep in their limousines across the world's biggest cable-stayed bridge - its pylons nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower in Paris - to the summit venue on Russky Island. They will be put up at a newly-built university campus, with some delegates sleeping in student dormitories.

"You start to think, how much did they spend on this bridge and who, at the end of the day, needs it?" said Samsonov, a 37-year-old opposition activist. "There is no relationship between the costs and the benefits."

THE RIGHT TO RIGHT-HAND DRIVE

Samsonov's civic initiative was among the first to organise protests against the crisis measures launched byPutin during the economic slump of 2009 that included imposing punitive tariffs on imports of second-hand foreign cars.

The step helped save state car maker AvtoVAZ from collapse, but infuriated many locals who had supplemented their incomes by bringing in used, right-hand-drive cars from Japan. They took to the streets.

"The authorities were absent in Vladivostok for a number of hours," recalls regional parliamentary deputy Vladimir Bespalov, an opposition communist.

"Police chiefs, regional administrators, the mayor - none was able to deal with several thousand people who were ready to destroy, wreck and overturn," he said. "The city was on the brink of chaos."

Putin dispatched elite OMON riot police from Moscow to put down the protests, and paid with a loss of public support in last December's parliamentary election, when his ruling party - dominant elsewhere - placed third.

Even in Russia's tightly controlled electoral system, Putin fell short of an outright regional majority in the presidential election in March. He polled 48 percent in Primorye, far below his national tally of 64 percent.

Konstantin Bovdik, a qualified Chinese teacher, long ago gave up his career in education and made good money - 60,000 roubles ($1,900) per month - working on the Zolotoi Rog bridge. Now the 34-year-old could lose his job.

"Well, this is it. The bridge is built. The summit will end. And we feel the economic crisis breathing hard down our necks," said the tanned anti-corrosion specialist, wearing a blue boiler suit and orange hard hat as he shouldered two three-metre steel beams.

"All the money goes back to Moscow, and then gets pumped out to London," he said. "They steal everything and then hit us over the head with coshes ... This is a police state."

Primorye Governor Vladimir Miklushevsky, appointed this year to run the region of two million people after his predecessor was fired amid a slew of corruption allegations, said the authorities needed to work to restore public trust.

"There is a general lack of confidence among the people in the authorities. Power needs to be more open," said the 44-year-old engineer, a native of Yekaterinburg originally brought in to run the new university on Russky Island.

Former governor Sergei Darkin has, meanwhile, landed a job in Moscow as Russia's deputy minister for regional development.

"It's spitting in the face of the masses," says Alexander Latkin, the 65-year-old director of the city's Institute of International Business and Economics.

CHINA SYNDROME

With the Soviet collapse of 1991 a fading memory, fears that a rising China might colonise and eventually annex the east are scoffed at by local experts - even if Moscow occasionally plays up the perceived threat to Russia's territorial integrity.

"We still face the task of defending our far eastern territory from excessive expansion by citizens of bordering states," Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev intoned at a cabinet meeting last month after returning from a trip toVladivostok, where he opened the Russky Island bridge to traffic.

"There are fewer Chinese here than there were 10 years ago," replied sinologist Viktor Larin, adding that low-paid jobs were now being taken by migrant labourers from former-Soviet Central Asia and nearby North Korea. The Chinatowns of Russia's far east had all but disappeared, he said, as migrants were lured home by economic growth rates more than twice as high as Russia's.

The contrast on each side of the border is stark, the Chinese territories booming and drawing in ever more workers while the Russian Far East struggles with the drift westwards.

China's more than 1.3 billion population needs Russia's Siberian and far eastern natural resources, the oil, the minerals and timber timber, and "it's cheaper to buy them than to fight for them," said Larin.

"They don't need to settle here."

Fears China might occupy swathes of Russia's eastern territory were, he said, a "collective, subconscious myth".

Russia has nothing to fear by opening up the east - maybe this time it will succeed, according to Primorye's first post-Soviet governor Vladimir Kuznetsov, who went on to serve as Russia's consul general in San Francisco.

"Vladivostok was founded as a window to the Asian world. Then there was revolution, civil war, Soviet rule. When I became governor my chief task was to open up the city. It was the second attempt - and it didn't work out," said Kuznetsov, now a tutor at the Far Eastern Federal University on Russky Island.

"Now, we have a third chance - the APEC forum." 

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