Vienna, April 5 – Moscow has a transportation ministry and a highway administration but it “does not have a road which reliably connects the East and West of the country,” a lack that Russian officials from Vladimir Putin on down have tried to conceal but one that has profound consequences for how that country is ruled and its ability to function as a single state.
In an article in today’s “Novaya gazeta” entitled “A United Russia from Kaliningrad to Chita,” Aleksey Tarasov calls attention to one of the least well-kept secrets in the Russian Federation: the inability Russians to drive from one part of their country to another because of the lack of highways (novayagazeta.ru/data/2010/035/21.html).
The term “united Russia,” the paper’s Krasnoyarsk correspondent says, “has meaning only during the wintertime.” When temperatures rise above freezing, many roads linking east and west become impassable quagmires even for trucks, and as far as cars are concerned, Russians can forget about exercising their “constitutional right” of travel.
Tarasov suggests that “it is curious that a party with the unscientific and fantastic name of ‘United Russia” exists in all seasons and in all weathers” and that “activists of this party administer the roads of the country,” drawing “colossal sums of money from the budget” to do precisely that.”
“Not everyone and not always are people able to leave home or go home via the mythical roads in Russia,” he writes, but the problem is so widespread that it seldom garners much attention except by those who have to use the highways and who routinely refer to “fools and roads” as Russia’s two greatest problems.
Recently, however, one unfortunate motorist was able to reach President Dmitry Medvedev’s blog and “open [the president’s] eyes to the sad state of the federal highway M-53 “an in particular the 12 kilometer stretch passing through Usolye-Sibirskoye.” That road and those nearby have not been repaired and, Tarasov continues, there is not one working stop light.
The motorist was called to a meeting with the deputy head of the presidential administration Aleksandr Beglov who asked the man whether things were as bad as he reported, and then in something that resembles a fairy tale, Moscow gave the orders to begin the necessary repairs.
“This is remarkable,” the Siberian journalist says, but the interesting thing is that no one at the center seems interested in holding the officials who have not repaired the roads in the past but instead corruptly pocketed the moneys allocated for that. Had the motorist not intervened with an email, these officials would have gone on just as they had been.
The amount of money is enormous, and the absence of real work is even more outrageous: In the fall of 2008, Vladimir Putin opened a bridge across the Yenisey. But as soon as he departed and received plaudits from the Russian and international media, the bridge was immediately closed because in fact it was not finished or safe for transit.
“It’s too bad,” Tarasov continues, that “Putin doesn’t have a blog, and therefore it is clear that he cannot find out about the fate of the objects he opens” after he flies back to Moscow.And he clearly needs to have something like that. In February 2004, he promised that there would be a federal highway from the Pacific to the Baltic by 2008.
Indeed, he said it would be possible to use this as the main link of “a transcontinental highway from Paris through Berlin and Moscow to Vladivostok.” Putin’s subordinates made promises that they would have this road completed early, by the end of 2007. But what in fact happened?
Nothing. All of them were taking “about a road which did not exist and does not exist now. And in the foreseeable future, it will not exist either.” Worse, the impassable elements of this highway appear to be increasing. Three years ago, impassable sections extended only 96 kilometers. Now, Tarasov says, they measure 140 kilometers – almost 50 percent more.
Moscow and Russians can only hope for two things: that temperatures will stay below freezing so that they can get from one place to another and that the transportation minister will be able to keep costs of the fourth ring around Moscow below those allocated for the supercollider – although neither outcome is likely.
“The absence of a road between the East and West of the country is a question of its national security,” Tarasov concludes. And Russians who have to use the highways are already speaking of problems that prevent them from going where they want to go as being “because of Putin.”
But even if that conclusion is too apocalyptic, it is certainly the case that the absence of highway connections mean that Moscow has far fewer options in its attempts to govern the regions being forced by the lack of roads to allow regional officials enormous leeway or compelled to adopt authoritarian measures to try to keep them and the regions in line.