Vienna, August 11 – Vladimir Putin’s latest swing through Siberia, a trip he said was intended to highlight the importance of Siberia for Russia, in fact underscored Moscow’s lack of interest in the people of that enormous region and demonstrated Siberia’s need to move toward decolonization, according to a Moscow reporter who followed in the prime minister’s footsteps.
In an article in “Novaya gazeta,” Aleksey Tarasov argues that this sad state of affairs reflects the way Moscow elites “use Siberia as exotic islands, for rest, public relations, and enrichment,” preferring to build pipelines from which they can extract wealth instead of roads that would benefit Siberians (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2009/086/01.html).
And having described his own inability to drive home from Irkutsk westward, Tarasov pointedly notes that “if someone cannot drive home, he will search for another home,” a comment that clearly has less to do with him as an individual than it does with Siberia and its people as a whole.
Putin, the journalist says routinely referred during this trip as he has in the past, the federal highway M-53 which he suggests unites Siberia with Russia, but “despite all the cutting of ribbons and the speeches of the first persons of the state,” Tarasov says, “there is [in many places along its route] no asphalt” or even bridges across relatively small rivers.
Moreover, he points out, “the resolution in Siberia of geopolitical questions depends to a greater extent not on the Kremlin but like even four centuries ago, on rain, snow, ice, rivers, and streams,” which frequently combine throughout the year to make the poorly paved or unpaved roads impassable.
Many Siberians are infuriated not only by Moscow’s preference for its pipelines over the region’s need for roads but also by the fact that during the Putin years, Siberians have been “regularly told about a road which doesn’t exist” or about improvements in existing roads that either have not taken place or have made the situation worse.
In February 2004, Putin “cut the ribbon at a bridge over the Amur” and proclaimed that this was “a very big event not only for the Far East but for the entire country. In 1903,” the then president said, “the TransSiberian railroad was opened. And this [the opening of the road] was an event second only in importance to that.”
But it quickly became apparent that Putin’s words did not reflect reality. Much of the road was either unpaved or even ungraded, many bridges needed had not been constructed, and as a result, travel times on this national highway have increased, sometimes even doubling, since Putin said the highway was open.
Tarasov points to some especially bad stretches of highway between Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk where three years ago, he says, it took a day to drive but now takes two. And he points to the stretch of 400 versts between Nizhny Ingash and Tulun as the worst of all, with the muddy road having become a cemetery for “thousands of cars.”
(The only positive consequence of these otherwise unfortunate developments in the highways of Siberia and the Russian Far East, the “Novaya gazeta” journalist suggests, is that no one can call the M-53 “a highway of death.” Cars must proceed so slowly that it is extremely difficult “to be killed.”)
In order to profit from the export of oil and gas, however, Moscow has pressed ahead with the construction of pipelines, but “pipelines instead of roads is not even a case of guns instead of butter. When there are guns, it is possible to hope for victory.” But when there are no roads, people are deprived of hope.
Nonetheless, he suggests, there is more than a desire for profits involved: “Good roads, like computers lead to the decentralization of life. Roads are a kind of freedom.” Unfortunately, in Russia, Moscow prefers control via the vertical, with “the powers that be free to do what they want but not even able to cope with theft” by those who are supposed to be building highways.
Moscow might have been able to get away with such an attitude up to now, Tarasov says, but the increasing number of Russians who own cars is going to change that equation. However much you love your village, “if you buy a Mercedes and regularly wash it, that means that you already love yourself a little more.”
And that sense of self-worth among the residents of Siberia that car ownership promotes in turn means that “you will not agree that your life should be structured along pipeline routes rather than roads, by infrastructure for Urals gas and Siberian Light crude but by highways for Ivanov, Petrov, and Sidorov” – or for Siberia as a whole.