Sunday, December 8, 2013

Window on Eurasia: If Putin Really Wanted to Integrate Russia, He’d Build Decent Roads



Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 8 – President Vladimir Putin talks a lot about the risks of the disintegration of the Russian Federation, but if he were really interested in integrating the country, he would talk less and build better roads and highways, something that the new Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum shows he has not done.

            Instead, Russia ranks 136th out of the 144 countries rated by the report, just below Bosnia and Herzegovina and just above Ukraine and Gabon in the bottom ten on this ranking which reflected an assessment of density, quality of construction, and level of maintenance (forbes.ru/news/234972-rossiya-popala-v-desyatku-stran-s-samymi-plohimi-dorogami-v-mire).

            That Russian roads are inadequate is an ancient observation, but many observers blame the country’s northern climate and enormous size for this. In fact, while climate and distance matter, government policy on the construction and maintenance of roads matters far more most of the time.

            Moscow has not boosted compression rates for the foundations of highways in decades. As result, as trucks have become heavier and traffic more intense, potholes emerge. And under Russian government arrangements, contractors make more money from repairs than initial construction thus giving them little incentive to care about building good roads.

            Anyone who has travelled on Russian roads, especially those outside of the Moscow ring road is familiar with the result. Travel is slow, something with economic consequences. It is indirect, because the roads still focus on political centers rather than economic ones. And it has enormous political consequences as well.

            Russians who live far from Moscow are likely to travel there only by much more expensive air or rail, and with subsidies for those being cut by a cash-strapped government, they are not going to and thus in many cases creating the imaginary geography that is the basis of any country.

            But most important, the absence of roads has a political meaning: Moscow often has to choose between allowing regional elites to go their own way on many things a more integrated state would limit, or it has to use repression to keep those elites in line, dispatching officials by helicopter because there are no effective roads.

            That more than many of the other facts undermining Russia explains much of what is going on.  Good roads could be an important part of the cure. Unfortunately, that unglamorous segment of the nation’s economy is just one more area where Putin and his regime have not been willing to devote serious attention and resources.

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