Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called for a sweeping probe of Russia’s creaking Soviet-era infrastructure on Thursday after a disaster at its largest hydroelectric power station.
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“The tragic events at the Sayano-Shushenskaya power station showed with full clarity how much we need to do to improve the reliability of our engineering structures in general,” Putin told a meeting of the government.
“A serious review of all strategic and vital infrastructure is required,” said Putin, who was to travel to the site of the disaster on Friday.
Few of Russia’s roads, bridges or railways have been upgraded since Soviet times; the turbines at the plant were designed to last no more than 25-30 years, but were still in place 31 years after the colossal dam opened.
Analysts say Moscow has fallen behind its emerging market rivals in infrastructure investment — Russia’s roads alone claimed 30,000 lives last year.
“What happens on our roads is like a report from a war zone — and the same is true of work at sophisticated technical facilities,” Putin told the cabinet.
Excuse me? This is news? The decrepitude of Soviet, sorry, Russian infrastructure has been well known for a very long time. From the roads to the rails to air transport to gas pipelines to whatever, Russian infrastructure has been a safety and maintenance nightmare.
And remind me, how long has Putin been president or prime minister? Ten years, almost to the day, right? And he’s just figured out all of a sudden that this is a major problem? Only now is he seeing problems with “full clarity”? Only now he understands that a full review is needed?
Just what has he done to address these matters during this period during which he has exercised almost absolute power? How has he encouraged the development of institutions and financial markets that would facilitate the direction of capital to the rehabilitation of “engineering structures”?
He has done very little, in fact. He has spent inordinate amounts of time on playing CEO of Gazprom, and blowing inordinate sums on “prestige” projects like the Sochi Olympics ($6 billion and climbing) and the billion dollar bridge to an island of a few thousand people to show off for a few days for the 2012 APEC Summit. These paragraphs from an NYT article on the bridge to Russki Island (AKA the Bridge to Nowhereski) speak volumes:
The spending looms large because the government has sharply cut the rest of the infrastructure budget in response to the financial crisis. As a result, the work in Vladivostok and Sochi is drawing criticism that the Kremlin is focusing on trophy projects that might burnish national pride, but will not yield long-term economic benefits.
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Before the financial crisis, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin proposed a $1 trillion program to modernize infrastructure, but those plans have been largely shelved, officials said, in favor of spending on social and employment programs, which are aimed at helping to soothe tensions in distressed parts of the country.
Financial analysts estimated that Russia spent roughly $42 billion for infrastructure in 2008, about 13 percent of government spending. This year and next, however, that figure is expected to drop to 5 to 7 percent, they said, and that includes the outlays for Vladivostok and Sochi.
Even before the crisis, Russia massively underinvested in its infrastructure. It is galling in the extreme for Putin to respond to the Siberian power plant disaster by attempting to appear that he is concerned and proactive, when he is more responsible than anyone for Russia’s failures to address seriously its chronic structural problems–more responsible, because he has more power than anyone.
Now, to be sure, Russia’s problems were so daunting that even the most focused and effective efforts over 10 years would have left much still to do. But despite a lot of talk, this was not one of Putin’s priorities. More concerned with redirecting rents and restoring Russia’s international and military power, he has largely neglected the hard and less glamorous task of creating a physical and institutional infrastructure befitting a modern country. So what has he created in his ten years? A wannabe superpower with feet of clay.
Due to his warped priorities, he has squandered seven fat years, and faces many lean years. With foreign investors deserting the country (in large part due to Putin’s flagrant disregard for the security of their property), the banking system teetering and requiring huge sums due to cascading non-performance on loans, and the government budget dangerously overextended, to name just a few pressing issues, it is unlikely that the resources needed to strengthen Russia’s infrastructure will be forthcoming any time soon. Russia has long lived off Soviet capital, and that capital is about depreciated with few prospects to replace it.
So the only real question is where the next big accident will occur.
Putin has been more than willing to take credit for Russia’s supposed resurrection. He is far less willing to take blame for its problems. And it takes a special kind of chutzpah to pose as the serious, sober leader acting to tackle Russia’s infrastructure problems after squandering the last ten years doing very little about it.
The only thing more pathetic than that is that he is likely to get away with it.