Little Evidence of Progress On Putin's $6Bln Project

VLADIVOSTOK -- On Russky Island, once a top-secret base for the Soviet Navy off the headlands of Vladivostok, there's little evidence of the grandiose $6 billion project that's key to the region's ambitions.

Then-President Vladimir Putin pledged to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit there in 2012. The plans call for a conference center with a cluster of luxury hotels, reachable via a $1 billion suspension bridge, along with improvements to Vladivostok's roads and airport.

As the deadline approaches, however, skepticism is growing that the work will not be completed on schedule. Hanging in the balance is more than the country's ability to honor Putin's pledge. Failing to complete the project jeopardizes the government's goal of developing the Far East Federal District as a gateway to some of the world's fastest-growing economies.

"I don't doubt their intention, but I doubt they will succeed in time," said Masayoshi Kamohara, the Japanese consul general based in Vladivostok. "If the Russian government can't meet the target, it would be a shame for the state."

The Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for 60 percent of the world's population and half its trade, is the country's second-biggest import-export partner after the European Union.

Dmitry Medvedev visited China in May as part of his first foreign trip as president to show his determination to cultivate closer ties in the region.

"Russia needs a specific goal, like winning the war or getting a city ready for its anniversary," said Alexander Abramov, director of the Far East Center for Economic Development. "Set a date, and you can get people moving."

During the past 20 years, residents have left the city, fleeing isolation, a high cost of living and dwindling jobs. The population of the Far East has fallen to 6.5 million from 8.8 million in 1989.

Some locals say Vladivostok has more pressing needs than a 3.2-kilometer bridge to an island with only 6,000 inhabitants, many of whom would move away if they could.

"This is all a bunch of sweet dreams," said Vyacheslav Nesterov, a retired army officer who lives on Russky Island. "There will be no bridge, never. And there is no reason to build one."

By the end of July, there was no sign of any major construction on or near the island. While work has begun on another bridge, over Vladivostok's Zolotoi Rog Bay, the government has not announced when it will take bids to build the Russky Island span. It did say in May that the conference site would be used for a new university when the summit is over.

Ferries still chug across the bay, disgorging families heading for the island's camps and mushroom hunters setting off into its forests of gnarled birch trees. At the Pospelovo landing, near where the 85,000-square-meter conference center and a 40,000-square-meter press center are to be built, a couple of cows browse along the edges of a garbage dump.

Local planners agree that the clock may run out. Valentin Anikeyev, a member of the project team, said it might be too late to build the hotels. Instead, visitors to the summit may end up staying in cruise ships brought in for the occasion.

"There is still time, but if we drag it out for another six months, there will be a problem," he said.