On the Road Again in Russia

kremlintraffic080709.jpgGood late morning, afternoon from Washington DC.  Before I make my way out to the airport to fly back home to London, I thought I would catch up on some of the weekend’s news.

Speaking of travel, over the years our correspondent in Russia, Grigory Pasko, has done an inordinate amount of reporting on this blog about the unfortunate conditions of the roads in so many parts of the regions.  Though perhaps peculiar to an outsider, anyone who has traveled to Russia and bothered to get outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, would understand our fixation on this routine minutae of transportation infrastructure.

By comparison, I recall driving along the coastline of a certain small Central American countrysome years ago, and noticing that we couldn’t go more than half a milewithout hitting dozens of large speed bumps.  I asked my local friendwhy they didn’t just post speed limits or something instead of ruiningthe shocks on his little Nissan and every other car.  He said, “Bobby, this is just one of those signs indicative of a country where people don’t bother to observe the law.” Impunity, in other words, goes beyond white collar crime and humanrights violations on down to routine traffic violations and violationsof safety laws.

In Russia, at least in many parts of the region, one would bechallenged to get going very fast before hitting some rather dauntingand damaging potholes.  Though the poor condition of the roads may helpreduce traffic fatalities, the truth is that transportationinfrastructure is one area that this government has really dropped theball – showing a severe under-investment and inefficiency during aperiod of high growth.  Paul Goble recently posted on this subjectas well as some other news sources, reporting that between 1989 and2008, Russia’s transportation infrastructure almost did not increase atall – only adding some 5,000 km of new roads.  In comparison, Brazil’sroads and highways grew by some 65%, while China builts more kilometresof new roads every ten days than Russia did last year (though that mayhave something to do with the fact that the cost per km to build a roadin Russia is among the highest in the world).  Naturally, the lack ofinfrastructure is challenge to Russia’s economic competitiveness …Stratfor has written on this in the past.

As such, I am reading with great interest all the news this weekend about President Dmitry Medvedev’s actions to counter the high amount of highway traffic fatalities in Russia.  On Thursday, he convened an automobile safety conference, spoke at length about the problem.  Medvedev’s prompt action was a response to a horrific traffic accident which killed 21 people, contributing to the inglorious ranking of Russia as #1 in road traffic fatalities in all of Europe (21 per 100,000 – compared to 6 per 100,000 in Germany).

So, how to approach this problem of traffic fatalities?  Should the president discuss the difficult situation which challenges the government’s ability to build proper infrastructure (Goble notes that the majority of Russian highways lack steel guard rails and other safety features), or should the Kremlin discuss the pervasive culture of corruption which makes new road construction so impossible?  No, that’s not quite how it played out.

From the New York Times (emphasis mine):

Several factors make Russia’s roads dangerous. Highways are poorly maintained, and Russians often drive older cars that lack modern safety equipment. The traffic police are widely considered to be corrupt, and drivers who break the law can often escape punishment by paying a bribe on the spot, allowing them to stay on the road.

Evenso, Mr. Medvedev and other top officials have skirted the issue ofpolice corruption, focusing instead on poor driving and a fatalisticculture of disregard for road safety. Mr. Medvedev last month even denounced what he referred to as “the undisciplined, criminally careless behavior of our drivers.”

There is something particularly problematic about this instinctual unwillingness within the culture of Russian officialdom to ever tackle a problem head on, and speak clearly and transparently about the true nature of the issue they are attempting to solve.  This whole story about roads just goes to show how many different types of victims there are to common corruption and impunity. 

Drive safe, everybody.