Russia’s Pork Barrel Politics in the East

russkiisland042109.jpgA reader has directed my attention to this interesting article by Clifford Levy published in The New York Times about a seemingly unnecessary $1 billion bridge – which would be the longest suspension bridge in the world – connecting Vladivostok to the sparsely populated small island of Russki (there is also an interesting video).  Levy focuses the example of the bridge, but the issue really at stake is the Kremlin’s drive to create an Eastern economic identity, preparing to show off some muscle before the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting in 2012 … part of a budget package of some $6 billion being funneled toward this region despite lacking need, population, or significant economic activity.  Kind of a “if you build it, they will come” attitude to the Vladivostok area.

Despite the crush of the economic crisis, with so many Russians watching basic food staples become unaffordable, the state is pouring funds generously in these absurd projects.  One motivation to continue forward with this APEC bridge is obvious – just like in Alaska, the corruption economy surrounding such pork barrel budgets provides many opportunities for leakage (let’s not forget that one prosecutor has said that 1/3 of the state budget, $120 billion per year, is lost to graft).

However, there are other more complex motivations behind the mega-projects, related to certain ideas held in Moscow reflecting nationalism and a nagging inferiority complex.

These actions over in Vladivostok have been building for several years now.  Our Russia correspondent Grigory Pasko has been filing reports on the strange politics of this Eastern port city for quite some time,which coincidentally was also the site of some of the most seriousprotests of the Putin era related to auto tariffs.  Along with the development of Sochi inpreparation of the Olympic Games, the quantity of money being pouredinto the barren East represents yet another project of “Stakhanovite” ambition – a trend we have pointed out in the past. 

This latest bridge to nowhereis consistent with the rhetorical signature of the current Russiangovernment – no matter what they are doing, it is outsized, brash,fantastic, massive, and in practical terms, unbelievable … whether itis Gazprom’s claim to buy all the gas in the world (or at least all of Libya), wild architecture projects, the accusation that Khodorkovsky “embezzled” enough oil to fill train cars circling the equator three times, or the state’s attempt to simultaneously build two underwater natural gas pipelines (Nord Stream and South Stream) to neatly fit the noose around Europe’s willing neck.

There’s no doubt that impossibly ambitious projects are a helpful demonstration of power, proactivity, and capability – three things that many Russian citizens had hungered for during the drift following the collapse of the Soviet Union – no matter whether or not in the end these ideas turn out to be feasible (remember Stalin’s dream of the Palace of the Soviets?).  However it is especially disturbing to watch with growing unease as the Stakhanovite, high budget political projects of the Kremlin, slide further and further away from the public interest.

My prediction is that as the economic crisis makes life for the average Russian worse, we will see more hype around initiatives like space missions, impressive new military gear, Olympic stadiums, bridges, skyscrapers, and other potemkin signs of revitalization – when in fact Russia is in a critical moment in which these public funds should be directed toward diversifying the economy away from commodity exports for the future.