Russia’s Ruined Far East Metropolis

Vladivostok is a distorted city. This city of 600,000 people is at the southern extremity of a 30km long peninsula, with only two access routes – a two-lane tortuous road full of potholes and a four-lane road with worse traffic jams than Moscow.

The indented coastline does provide magnificent natural harbors. Golden Horn bay, divided between the naval base and a commercial port, opens on to the eastern Bosphorus strait. The small bays take their names from legend: Diomedes, Ulysses, Ajax, Patroclus. But access is extremely restricted. Almost all the shoreline is taken up with port facilities, so the public only have access to one 300m stretch of beach right in the city centre, worthy of a Neapolitan industrial zone.

The city is distorted by traffic. It is said there are more cars here than people, and that’s easy to believe. I have rarely seen such chaos, and the fact that 99.9 per cent of vehicles are right-hand drive, even though they drive on the right, makes it worse. As in many Russian cities, the planners did not foresee mass car ownership, and haven’t tried to adapt to it.

The city is distorted by greed. It and its region, Primorsky Krai, are reputed to be among the most corrupt and mafia-dominated in the country. Local councillors are more interested in sharing the spoils of property speculation than repairing pavements or modernising the water and sanitation.

Houses, roads and other infrastructure are in a pitiful state – the trams run on twisted rails and points. A district dating from the 19th and early 20th century needs restoration. All that remains of the old Chinese areas, glimpsed in wonderful photographs of a century ago, are a few low brick houses. Even they are in danger of being demolished because of their prime location in the city centre.

The ambitions of the developers have been aided by migration policy. The Chinese were expelled in 1938 (after the battle of Lake Khanka) and the Koreans deported in 1939 (before the “Great Patriotic War”). Although the press and campaigning politicians make much of the “yellow peril”, there are fewer Asians here today than there were 100 years ago or than there are in Moscow. The city was closed to foreigners until 1992 and is still well guarded. Some look back with nostalgia to the days when it was closed – it was clean then, with flowers. They neglect to mention it got special funding, making it a relatively privileged place.

A Russian Vancouver

And it is distorted by political ambition. In 2012 Vladivostok will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. This is significant because the Soviet Union was for a long time excluded from this forum. The Kremlin wants to use the summit to advance its new Asian strategy. Governor Sergei Darkin wants to propose a huge infrastructure building plan, which local officials say will transform it into a Russian Vancouver.

This means years of fanciful, costly projects: six star hotels, sumptuous conference halls, a tunnel and two huge bridges – one over Golden Horn bay and the other linking the mainland with Russky Island across the strait to the south. It doesn’t seem to matter that there are very few people living there, just a few dilapidated military installations, some dachas, and beaches which the locals favor because they are on the Sea of Japan, away from the currents bringing pollution from the port. This is excellent land for speculators.

The Russian press has protested over this bridge to nikuda (nowhere). To protect it, local officials have suggested giving the new buildings to the future Far Eastern National University. Staff don’t relish the idea – how long would it take them to get over the bridge? With the summit-building program using all the funds, there is nothing left to tackle the daily traffic congestion. Most students and lecturers live in the centre or north of the city, so are reluctant to travel to an isolated campus. Dire predictions are being made that students will switch to universities in town: the competition is already gloating.

The Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, is aware of the problem. In a recent interview he described Vladivostok as “a magnificent city, very beautiful, but ruined: there isn’t even a normal drainage system. Everything is old and falling apart…” But he thinks the summit provides a good opportunity for the city, “a good excuse” to begin serious works. But good for the city, or its leaders?

There were rumors that Governor Darkin would be replaced, but in September the prime minister, Vladimir Putin, came to lend him support. The previous governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, a big name in the Yeltsin era and alleged to be high up in the fishing mafia, was sacked by Putin – only to be nominated head of fisheries. The current governor may not be much better. When Medvedev forced regional governors to publish their income and that of their spouses, the Moscow daily Novaya Gazeta accused Darkin of trying to disguise his income under different names in offshore accounts. Political battles here often take the form of kompromat – rumors and accusations against political or business rivals that are impossible to verify.

Protectionist measures recently taken by the federal government to help Russia out of the financial crisis have had the opposite effect in this region, where the economy is geared towards foreign exports. Limits on the export of scrap iron and timber and tighter fishing quotas have weakened an already fragile economy, which suffers from being so far from the industrial centres. The measures have reinforced the belief that Moscow doesn’t care about its far east. The population is responding with its feet – emigration to other regions has reached record levels.

The government passed a law in December 2008 to increase import tax on second-hand cars; it came into effect on January 11, 2009. Given the already tense atmosphere, it provoked demonstrations unprecedented in recent times. The protests were organized by a newly created movement called TIGR (Association of proactive citizens of Russia) and the Russian Communist Party, but even they could not control it. On December 14, 2008 more than 10,000 demonstrators blocked the city centre, while others tried to take over the airport. The police and special forces (OMON) were swamped and could do nothing but play down the significance of the protest, especially since some local politicians had joined in. On December 15 and 17 the regional assembly and the city’s Duma made an official request to Medvedev and Putin to rescind the law.

The anger can be explained by the importance of these imports to the regional economy. Russians much prefer to drive foreign cars than home-produced ones. Even their leaders spurn them, and drive BMWs, Mercedes or Porsches. There are no car factories in the Far East or eastern Siberia, so Russian cars have to be transported from the west of the country, increasing their price. More than 90 per cent  of cars driven here are Japanese or Korean (which explains the right hand drive), and are usually second-hand.

A thriving business has grown up supplying these cars to the whole of Asian Russia. It employs sailors, dockers and businessmen who import tens of thousands every year. There are those who go as far as to dismantle and saw in half the chassis of Japanese jeeps so they can import them in kit form, and put them back together at home, making adaptations to suit the client. An estimated 100,000 people are employed in this industry in Primorsky Krai, working in small and medium sized businesses. Checking an industry that operates independently and outside federal and local state control is part of the plan.

Moscow reacted quickly to the protests, rebuked local leaders for their apathetic reaction, and told them to explain the wisdom of the measures. But people were not impressed, and organized another demonstration for December 21. That was put down violently by OMON. National television did not cover the protests, but praised the few concessions offered by the government: subsidizing the cost of transporting Russian vehicles to the Far East, and the promise of reduced air fares to European Russia for pensioners and students. There were more protests in January 2009, when the law came into effect, but with the help of OMON and the cold weather, the authorities managed to quell them.

Nothing has changed. Many Russian experts have criticized the protectionist measures taken by the government to save failing automobile companies. Neither these measures nor massive financial aid have produced any results. No one has been able to break the corruption, apathy and central planning that means factories continue to produce cars that no one wants.

In May warm weather returned. But even with the state-controlled May Day demonstrations and the victory celebrations of 9 May, the mood was gloomy. Activity at the port is slow, with very little cargo being handled. People survive on their savings while they wait for the end of the financial crisis. Some hope the government will rescind or amend the law once this difficult period is over. But most are pessimistic and expect things to worsen: these taxes will weaken an already fragile economy, and the APEC summit won’t save it. There will be more emigration to European Russia, with the young and dynamic the first to leave.

In January last year the Russian parliament issued a report accusing the protest organizers of being agents manipulated from abroad. “The mass demonstrations against the increase in import tariffs can be seen as an organized attempt to destabilize society in several Russian regions, activities reminiscent of the orange revolutions.” It concluded that these activities, manipulated by “foreign technologists”, aimed “to separate the Far East from Russia”.

Some protestors did carry orange flags, but it has been proved that the supposed threat of the Far East seceding from Russia was merely a bogeyman put forward by local politicians to mobilize support. Moscow prefers not to discuss the real state of public opinion in the region, revealed in a recent survey by Viktor Larin, director of the Vladivostok Institute of History. Asked: “Where do the main threats to Russia and the Far East come from?”, 47% of the region’s population replied “Moscow’s policies”. Only 37% replied “Chinese military power” and 36% “US hegemony”.

Translated by Stephanie Irving

This article appears in the January edition of the excellent monthly, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.