Saturday, December 4, 2010

Window on Eurasia: More than One Russian in Ten Lives in Places Still Not Connected to Outside World by Roads

Paul Goble

Staunton, December 4 – Moscow media have devoted a great deal of attention to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s plan for a massive road building effort in rural areas, but a “Krestyanskiye vedomosti” writer says that this program will do little to help the more than 10 percent of the population still living in places not connected to the outside by roads.
In a commentary posted on that newspaper’s website yesterday, Konstantin Mezentsev says that in order to understand what this program will actually do, one must look beyond the big numbers Putin announced to the specific plan the ministries of transportation and agriculture have agreed to (
On Wednesday, the Russian prime minister announced that the federal budget would spend 18 billion rubles (600 million US dollars) over the next three years for the construction of rural roads, five billion rubles in 2011, six in 2012, and seven in 2013, figures that are large or small depending on how one looks at them.
According the agreement the transportation and agriculture ministries have reached, Mezentsev continues, the money is intended to help in the first instance residents of settlements with at least 125 people in them and which are situated no more than five kilometers from existing highways.
So far, so good, Mezentsev continues, but “as always,” the devil is in the details. The Russian government plans to spend 630 billion rubles on roads in 2011. That makes the 18 billion for rural roads look quite small, and it is smaller yet because about half will be spent not on building new highways but on repairing old ones.
Obviously, in tough budgetary times, everyone must make sacrifices, the commentator continues, but any fair assessment of the situation would suggest that the government should be devoting six to seven times more to rural roads, given both the way in which they are financed and the needs of integrating the country.
“According to official statistics,” Mezentsev says, “15 million people exist in conditions of complete roadlessness” – that is, they live in places not connected to the country’s road network – and this figure is “more than a tenth of [all] Russian citizens,” a shocking figure for any country with pretensions to modernity.
If one looks at the rest of the world, one sees a far greater attention to the need for rural roads. US President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s helped get his country out of the depression “thanks to the construction of roads in rural areas.” Moreover, French law requires that any population point with at least five persons in it be connected by modern highways.
The Chinese, on the basis of a program adopted in 2008, are building roads in rural areas at a rate that will link into the national grid “all rural regions of the country” by 2013. And even Ukraine, a country many Russians are inclined to look down on is currently spending a billion US dollars a year on this task, despite its much smaller budget and territory.
The comparative absence of roads in Russia’s rural areas, Mezentsev says, not only means that what these places produce often rots before it gets to market but also leads to a situation in which the part of Russia from which so many urban dwellers come is dying, a situation that bodes anything but well for the future of the country.
To illustrate his argument about the importance of roads, the commentator tells the story of one village near Moscow located only a few kilometers from the highways but not linked by road to them. “For all the years of socialism, a rural road was not extended to it.” And consequently, the little village died.
But then, a local farmer, using federal credits, arranged to build an asphalt road. And a miracle happened. The village revived, and “now there is one of the best dairy farms in the entire Moscow oblast with production and quality and the level of the Netherlands,” something that benefits people in the cities as well.
The main thing, however, is that with the revival of the village, “the daughters, sons, grandsons and relatives who had been living in the capital and surrounding cities suddenly remembered their village relatives.” Many of them have returned and build modern homes with all conveniences and “a bright new church.”
Moreover, Mezentsev says, “one could cite many not a few other such cases.” And consequently, he concludes, “if the government seriously wants Russia to have an advanced agriculture, then it must devote to the construction and support of rural infrastructure the most serious attention.”
Instead, he notes sadly, it seems to be following the path of the man in the old anecdote who looked for a 1000 ruble note he had lost not where he thought he had lost it but rather under a street light for the simple and entirely irrelevant reason that under the street light, it was easier to see what he was doing.

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