* Region gets $21 bln makeover for APEC summit
* Locals grumble over corruption, prestige projects
* Putin's support languishes in Pacific outpost
By Denis Dyomkin
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia, Sept 3 Vladimir Lenin's
vision of developing Russia's far east would not be out of place
in President Vladimir Putin's talking points for the
Asia-Pacific summit he is hosting this week in the Pacific port
"We will propose that capital from developed countries
construct a super-highway between London, Moscow, Vladivostok
and Beijing," said the plan, endorsed in 1922 by the Soviet
revolutionary leader. "We will tell them that it will open up
the untold riches of Siberia."
Ninety years on, the Kremlin has redecorated Russia's window
on the east in the hope of improving its image in the eyes of
investors from the world's fastest-growing region, and reviving
its flagging popularity among hard-pressed locals.
Tsarist Russia completed a 9,300-km (5,800-mile) rail line
to Vladivostok in record time, only to fall to the Bolsheviks a
year later. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was inspired to
develop the city by a visit to San Francisco, another Pacific
city on a bay, in 1959.
Now, Russia has pumped $21 billion into its eastern seaboard
to attract investors, tourists and gamblers from Asia, and
persuade locals to halt the drift away from a city that, for all
the grand designs, remains largely isolated from the rest of the
world's largest country.
Putin, 59, underscored a strategic pivot away from
crisis-hit Europe to the rising economies of the Pacific rim by
creating a government department for developing Russia's far
east after his return to the Kremlin for a third term in May.
But in Vladivostok, a city of 600,000 where the clocks run
seven hours ahead of Moscow, the injection of capital has done
little to lift the low regard in which many locals hold the
leader who has dominated Russia since 2000.
Although the city - whose name translates as 'Ruler of the
East' - has received a makeover, with a new airport, bridges and
highway intersections, residents say inflated contracts were won
by insiders and the money would have been better spent on social
services and housing.
"I don't associate it with Putin. They took ages to get
round to building the bridge," said 28-year-old biologist
Yevgeny Skorkin, joining thousands of people on a mass stroll
last month over the new bridge across the Zolotoi Rog (Golden
Horn) inlet that opens up a vista across the city's port and the
ships of Russia's Pacific Fleet in the harbour.
"CENTRE OF THE WORLD"
Local artists fantasised at the start of the last century
about a bridge that would connect two remote districts of
Vladivostok, but the project remained a dream until Putin found
$500 million in the budget to build it.
"Only now are we starting to live. We are creating a
European city. The centre of the world is here!" enthused
Vladivostok's mayor, Igor Pushkaryov, in a conversation with
this reporter on the bridge, just as fog started to roll in.
The centre of Vladivostok is quiet of an evening, but is at
least well lit - in contrast to the murk of the 1990s when the
city was plagued by power cuts. Laser cannons mounted atop the
bridge pylons play against the night sky. But the foreign
eateries and cafes that dot cities in Russia's European
heartland, like McDonalds and Starbucks, are nowhere to be seen.
Eyeing a second term, the 37-year-old former businessman
hopes that the attention of Russia's leaders will not fade after
the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit
this weekend: "We really want this relationship to continue. We
are happy people - we did it!"
Such positive sentiments are not shared by all.
"Nobody experiences particularly warm emotions," regional
lawmaker Artyom Samsonov says of his fellow easterners' attitude
towards Putin, who in a national television question-and-answer
show in 2007 promised new investments to halt the depopulation
of the Primorye region as people sought work elsewhere.
Five years after Putin's volley of promises, the young,
educated people of Vladivostok are still leaving, while the city
can boast another trophy of regional development - a second
bridge built at a cost of $1 billion.
Leaders will sweep in their limousines across the world's
biggest cable-stayed bridge - its pylons nearly as tall as the
Eiffel Tower in Paris - to the summit venue on Russky Island.
They will be put up at a newly-built university campus, with
some delegates sleeping in student dormitories.
"You start to think, how much did they spend on this bridge
and who, at the end of the day, needs it?" said Samsonov, a
37-year-old opposition activist. "There is no relationship
between the costs and the benefits."
THE RIGHT TO RIGHT-HAND DRIVE
Samsonov's civic initiative was among the first to organise
protests against the crisis measures launched by Putin during
the economic slump of 2009 that included imposing punitive
tariffs on imports of second-hand foreign cars.
The step helped save state car maker AvtoVAZ from
collapse, but infuriated many locals who had supplemented their
incomes by bringing in used, right-hand-drive cars from Japan.
They took to the streets.
"The authorities were absent in Vladivostok for a number of
hours," recalls regional parliamentary deputy Vladimir Bespalov,
an opposition communist.
"Police chiefs, regional administrators, the mayor - none
was able to deal with several thousand people who were ready to
destroy, wreck and overturn," he said. "The city was on the
brink of chaos."
Putin dispatched elite OMON riot police from Moscow to put
down the protests, and paid with a loss of public support in
last December's parliamentary election, when his ruling party -
dominant elsewhere - placed third.
Even in Russia's tightly controlled electoral system, Putin
fell short of an outright regional majority in the presidential
election in March. He polled 48 percent in Primorye, far below
his national tally of 64 percent.
Konstantin Bovdik, a qualified Chinese teacher, long ago
gave up his career in education and made good money - 60,000
roubles ($1,900) per month - working on the Zolotoi Rog bridge.
Now the 34-year-old could lose his job.
"Well, this is it. The bridge is built. The summit will end.
And we feel the economic crisis breathing hard down our necks,"
said the tanned anti-corrosion specialist, wearing a blue boiler
suit and orange hard hat as he shouldered two three-metre steel
"All the money goes back to Moscow, and then gets pumped out
to London," he said. "They steal everything and then hit us over
the head with coshes ... This is a police state."
Primorye Governor Vladimir Miklushevsky, appointed this year
to run the region of two million people after his predecessor
was fired amid a slew of corruption allegations, said the
authorities needed to work to restore public trust.
"There is a general lack of confidence among the people in
the authorities. Power needs to be more open," said the
44-year-old engineer, a native of Yekaterinburg originally
brought in to run the new university on Russky Island.
Former governor Sergei Darkin has, meanwhile, landed a job
in Moscow as Russia's deputy minister for regional development.
"It's spitting in the face of the masses," says Alexander
Latkin, the 65-year-old director of the city's Institute of
International Business and Economics.
With the Soviet collapse of 1991 a fading memory, fears that
a rising China might colonise and eventually annex the east are
scoffed at by local experts - even if Moscow occasionally plays
up the perceived threat to Russia's territorial integrity.
"We still face the task of defending our far eastern
territory from excessive expansion by citizens of bordering
states," Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev intoned at a cabinet
meeting last month after returning from a trip to Vladivostok,
where he opened the Russky Island bridge to traffic.
"There are fewer Chinese here than there were 10 years ago,"
replied sinologist Viktor Larin, adding that low-paid jobs were
now being taken by migrant labourers from former-Soviet Central
Asia and nearby North Korea. The Chinatowns of Russia's far east
had all but disappeared, he said, as migrants were lured home by
economic growth rates more than twice as high as Russia's.
The contrast on each side of the border is stark, the
Chinese territories booming and drawing in ever more workers
while the Russian Far East struggles with the drift westwards.
China's more than 1.3 billion population needs Russia's
Siberian and far eastern natural resources, the oil, the
minerals and timber timber, and "it's cheaper to buy them than
to fight for them," said Larin.
"They don't need to settle here."
Fears China might occupy swathes of Russia's eastern
territory were, he said, a "collective, subconscious myth".
Russia has nothing to fear by opening up the east - maybe
this time it will succeed, according to Primorye's first
post-Soviet governor Vladimir Kuznetsov, who went on to serve as
Russia's consul general in San Francisco.
"Vladivostok was founded as a window to the Asian world.
Then there was revolution, civil war, Soviet rule. When I became
governor my chief task was to open up the city. It was the
second attempt - and it didn't work out," said Kuznetsov, now a
tutor at the Far Eastern Federal University on Russky Island.
"Now, we have a third chance - the APEC forum."