Friday, February 15, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia Loses More from Bad Roads Than It Spends on Defense

Paul Goble

Baku, February 15 – The Russian economy is currently losing 1.8 trillion rubles (74 billion U.S. dollars) every year, far more than Moscow spends on national defense, because of the highly unsatisfactory condition of the country’s roads and the inadequate extent of its highway network.
Speaking to a meeting of the leadership of the transportation ministry this week, First Vice Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said that this situation must be corrected, lest it not only hurt the country economically but embarrass Moscow by costing it the Pacific rim summit in 2012 (
The danger that Moscow could lose that high-profile event is all too real, he and other officials at the meeting said, because unless construction of a bridge and adjoining roads are begun soon – and the plans for them keep changing and have not been approved – Russia will not be able to host that meeting.
Both the sad state of Russian roads and continuing but ineffective Moscow efforts to do something about it were highlighted in Ivanov’s report. He said that the government plans to build or repair 63,700 kilometers of roads over the next seven years, a drop in the bucket if it happens and one that his own comments suggest will not.
At present, he and other officials there said, Russia has 950,000 kilometers of roads of all types. But most are unpaved and not useable much of the year. Indeed, one official said “only 37 percent of the roads correspond to even minimal quality standards.” Ivanov himself noted that “only eight percent” of those are more than two lanes wide.
To try to remedy this situation and increase the density of roads in Russia – at present there are 70 meters of roads for every square kilometer there compared to 670 meters on the same measure in the U.S. – the Russian government is prepared to spend enormous sums.
But because of its traditional approach – more is spent on repairing than building and there is massive confusion and corruption in this sector – Moscow has little to show for its investment. In the hopes of changing that, Ivanov proposed several measures to remedy the situation, proposals that experts have already said are unlikely to work.
On the one hand, he called for requiring businesses who benefit from highways to help pay for their development and maintenance. But one expert told Gazeta that this would work only near Moscow and other major cities where there is a lot of traffic; it would do little or nothing to extend the country’s highway system.
And on the other, Ivanov urged the creation of a single state-owned company to build and maintain roads. Such an arrangement, which goes even further than the Soviet system did during most of its existence, might allow Moscow to redirect resources more easily but would do little or nothing to deal with the other problems he mentioned.
In addition to these problems and indeed overshadowing them is a fundamental difficulty that neither Ivanov nor anyone else in the Russian capital who does not have to travel on the highways that often seems willing to address: Regional and local governments are responsible for most roads, but Moscow gets most of the revenue.
That problem could be addressed by transferring more money to the regions and localities to allow them to meet their responsibilities or by forcing Moscow to use the money it has to pay for them. But because such changes would strike at the core of Russian politics – control over resources – any shift would be extraordinarily difficult.
And consequently, Russians who have long been accustomed to identifying roads as one of their nation’s greatest misfortunes are unlikely to change their views no matter how much money their government continues to pour down into the potholes that mar even the best of the limited number of roads in their country.

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