Friday, May 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Putin Project Won’t Do Much to Improve Russia’s Highway Network

Paul Goble

Baku, May 24 – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s massive infrastructure development program will not do much to improve Russia’s woefully underdeveloped road system, “a major obstacle” as he and other officials and analysts say to the economic and political development of the country.
Speaking in Sochi on Tuesday, Putin called on the parliament to spend 13 trillion rubles (550 billion US dollars) between 2010 and 2015 on infrastructure development. Among the areas he said the project would focus on is the highway system, but despite much media hype about it, his effort won’t have much of an effect in that area (
According to Putin, his program will “build or upgrade more than 17,000 km [1,000 miles] of federal, regional and local roads.” That may sound like a lot, but it is actually a miniscule effort not only absolutely but compared to what he says the government will invest in air fields, ports, and railways.
On the one hand, unless he changes the rules that the Russian government and enterprises involved in highway operation have followed in the past, as much as 80 percent of the money will go to improve existing roads rather than to build new ones. That is because firms make far more money on the former than on the latter.
Thus, the program probably won’t lead to the construction of any significant new highways, all the talk this week notwithstanding, and consequently, the more than 30,000 Russian villages not linked by road to the outside world and the millions of Russians without highway access to medical care will be no better off in 2015 than they are now.
And on the other, the costs of the new ports and railways that Putin proposes will eat up a far larger share of the program than will highways. In short, this program like so many the former president has been involved with will benefit business not people and allow continuing opportunities for massive corruption.
One of the places Moscow has already indicated it plans to build some new roads is in the Sakha Republic, an enormous northern region in the Russian Far North East. Covering more than 3.1 million km2, more than 30 percent of which is above the Arctic circle, and with enormous rivers and mountain ranges, the difficulties of highway construction are obvious.
As a result, Dmitry Verkhoturov writes, “85 percent of the territory of [Sakha] is accessible only during the short summer navigation period or during the winter when the ice roads are functioning.” That makes it extremely difficult to move people and goods around, and the new roads program will do nothing for most of this permafrost-bound area.
And because of that, officials there are looking to the air, but not to airplanes. Instead, they believe that a new fleet of dirigibles could tie the republic together and to the rest of the country, a program not anticipated in Putin’s proposals but one that might prove far more effective (
Compared to airplanes and helicopters, the regional specialist says, dirigibles have several “competitive advantages.” First, they are stable in a far broader range of weather conditions. Second, they are easier to pilot and land. Third, their cost of operation is far lower. And fourth, they can fly further.
Nothing may come of this idea, but it is intriguing – and one more indication if any were needed that Russia would benefit from smaller regionally originated projects than the Soviet gigantism that has fallen short so often in the past and that Putin nonetheless seems committed to pursuing yet again.

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