[Viewpoint] The new Russian wayVladivostok, Russia, the “city of eternal light” jutting into the Pacific Ocean, was barren, damp and extremely cold in mid-November. I was there to attend the South Korea-Russia Far Eastern Business Forum co-sponsored by the Korean Consulate General in Vladivostok and Far Eastern Federal University.
I jumped on the ferry that sailed against blowing snow to take me to the campus on Russky Island, south of the port city. The ride took about half an hour. The venue is where leaders will meet for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next September. The facades of residential buildings, a convention center and press room have almost been completed.
Development fever in the city contrasted with the icy cold Siberian wind. Russia’s de facto leader, Vladimir Putin, who is expected to reclaim the presidency next year, has been eager to modernize and develop the country’s vast northeastern frontier. The proof was everywhere.
Standing at the Eagle’s Nest Mount observation deck, the lofty fleet of naval warships and the main station of the Trans-Siberian Railway came in view. The construction of a 3.1-kilometer (1.9-mile) bridge connecting the mainland and Russky Island, where most events of the APEC meeting will take place, was also an awesome sight.
Construction was ongoing to build the world’s highest pylons and longest cable stays. Other bridge works are in progress to reach Golden Horn Bay. In fact, the entire city was under construction, including the modernization of airport facilities and the building of a new airport, highway, railway, hotels and hospitals.
The Far East development is spearheaded by Putin. He was premier under President Boris Yeltsin and became the acting president in 1999 when Yeltsin resigned. He won the presidential election in 2000 and served two terms through 2008. Under his leadership, Russia’s gross domestic product quadrupled. Stock prices jumped 12-fold, and the unemployment rate fell by 5 percent. He was credited with restoring Russia’s status after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union and renewed the country’s rank as a global power.
Because the Russian constitution does not allow for a third consecutive presidential term, and Putin handed power to his right-hand man, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and became prime minister himself. Yet despite his formal title, Putin still acts as Russia’s leader and plans to run in the presidential election next March. He envisions the 2012 APEC summit and development of the Russian Far East, a treasure of natural resources, as the start of a renaissance for Russia.
His vision was kicked off with a $20 billion, five-year federal program to develop the Russian Far East two years ago. There is a separate multibillion dollar energy project to develop the region’s gas and oil resources by 2030. The central government plans to invest up to 9 trillion rubles ($289 billion) by 2025 in the Far East and Siberian regions.
Putin’s ambitions do not stop there. He announced last month his grand plan to create a euro zone-like “Eurasian Union” among Russia and some of its former socialist satellites, hopefully before 2015. To start, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan will form a Common Economic Space next year and invite other old Soviet nations to join the union. Medvedev recently proclaimed Putin’s dream feasible.
Over the last two decades, the population of the Russian Far East shrank by 25 percent due to its sluggish economy. China is trying to make inroads across the border. The Far East region is strategically important as a path between Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific. That is why Putin is so fixed on the region in his broader plan to rebuild Russia. At the same time, the plan is aimed at fending off China’s rapid rise. Even though the region is desperate for foreign investment, Russia remains suspicious of Chinese capital.
The legacy of socialism remains alive. Right after I got on a bus on the airport runway to get to the terminal, the door opened again. I thought something was wrong. It turned out the ride to the terminal was a mere 30 meters (100 feet). Someone did not have their thinking cap on straight. The command-economy system still rules and generally rules out efficiency and good sense. Roads were cracked everywhere in the city.
Old habits from the Bolshevik days after the 1917 revolution cannot be discarded overnight. But on the surface, Russia continues to make progress. Earlier this month, Russia received membership in the World Trade Organization, a mission accomplished through long and tough efforts that have been going on since 1993.
The living standards of Russians lag far behind our own. But as for gross domestic product, Russia is bigger than us. Its economy is ranked 11th largest in the world with a GDP of $1.5 trillion, while ours is 15th with a GDP of slightly over $1 trillion. The country is unfathomably rich in energy and other natural resources.
Its future potential is immense. Putin has motivated the dreams and ambitions of Russians to revive their glory from the time of the Soviet Union. We have been busy wrangling over a free trade deal with the United States. Russians, on the other hand, are too eager to follow their dreams to have time for petty disputes about their national interests.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Shim Shang-bok