Staunton, February 11 – Even before he was chosen to lead the CPSU and hence the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1984 said he opposed the kind of megaprojects Soviet leaders had used up to then and favored instead more balanced development, a shift in attitude that informed his subsequent decision to block Siberian river diversion.
His decision had other consequences as well: it eliminated one of the means Soviet leaders had used to promote patriotic feelings, and it reduced one of the main channels of the inter-regional transfer of resources. But it gave rise to the hope that Moscow would not sacrifice services for the Soviet population on the altar of such leadership projects.
Both Gorbachev and his first Russian successor Boris Yeltsin followed that approach, the first out of conviction and the second because of the absence of resources or agreement on what might be done. But now as the Sochi Olympiad shows, Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, clearly wants to return to the megaproject approach.
That shift – and Sochi is only the largest and most prominent of the projects of this kind the Russian president has pushed --raises at least three questions: First, why has Putin made this shift? Second, what will this change mean for the Russian Federation if it extends, as seems likely, beyond Sochi? And third, can his government carry it out?
The reasons Putin has made this shift to megaprojects are clear. On this as on other issues, his thinking reflects his belief that Russia made a mistake in turning away from many Soviet ideas and should at least selectively draw on what worked in Soviet times as it moves toward the future.
But he clearly is driven by two other ideas as well. Megaprojects of the Soviet kind for all the waste they involved and all the distortion in the flow of resources they led to were inspirational, and Putin certainly believes that such projects not only can promote patriotic feelings among Russians but impress outsiders with Russia’s power.
And he also sees, and this is not so much something new as a vast expansion of what was true of some Soviet megaprojects, especially in Brezhnev’s time, that such efforts are an effective means of winning support among elites by giving the Kremlin the opportunity to divert resources into the hands of officials and business leaders and thus keep or win their loyalty.
If Putin views the Sochi megaproject as a model, what might that mean for the Russian Federation as a whole? Gorbachev’s critique of that approach provides a useful place to start. The last Soviet leader saw megaprojects as problematic for at least three reasons. First, such projects often failed to do more than win short-term propaganda points.
Second, they took money away from the basic social needs of the population and thus fed anger and even resistance on the part of many. And third, they represented an often unacknowledged transfer of resources from one part of the country to another without any consideration of the impact of such shifts on the people and leaders of the donor region.
Returning to such an approach now almost certainly will exacerbate all these problems not only because the center has much less power than it did in Soviet times but also because the losers will be increasingly likely to complain and exploit the new media to generate support for their views, at the very least triggering the intensification of center-periphery struggles.
But the largest question is this: can Putin pull this shift off and make megaprojects work for him and his country? Gorbachev dispensed with them largely because Soviet leaders had not been able to do so. Instead, while they clearly won short-term propaganda victories with them, projects like the Virgin Lands or BAM were not nearly as effective as they were presented.
In the latest issue of “Ekspert,” Aleksey Shchukin argues that Sochi shows that Russia has again “learned how to carry out megaprojects.” He says that the country “completely succeeded in preparing all sites for the Sochi Olympiad” and thus can launch other such projects in the future (expert.ru/expert/2014/07/nauchilis-delat-megaproektyi/).
Other observers, Russian and international alike, are less certain. They point not only to problems in that construction effort, including its inefficiencies, waste and corruption, but also to the likelihood that the Sochi effort, like those of other Soviet-era or Soviet-style megaprojects, will fall far short of the promises Putin and his regime have made for it.