Shuttle buses that drive participants of the APEC summit in Vladivostok speed along brand new thoroughfares and two majestic cable-stayed bridges.
But outside one of the conference hotels, decrepit garages and wooden cabins cluster next to rundown apartment complexes, and the narrow roads are so pothole-ridden they jam traffic just by the dismal quality of the asphalt.
An Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is a mundane event in the world of high politics, but Russia strove to turn it into a soft power display aimed at strengthening its flagging role in the Far East-Pacific region.
Indeed, Russia’s easternmost reaches are a unique exclave of Western civilization 9,000 kilometers away from Moscow, populated with natural-born survivors with a “can-do” attitude that Americans would easily relate to.
But the federal government neglected the region for two decades, and now faces the tough task of convincing the locals – and potential investors – that it finally means business.
Glacial Pace of Integration
APEC is certainly a bloc to court, comprising such global powerhouses as China, Japan, South Korea and the United States. The group is responsible for 55 percent of the global GDP and accounts for 40 percent of the world’s population – figures often flaunted at the summit.
Russia’s combined trade with APEC members, however, was under $100 billion in the first half of 2012, compared with the $200 billion trade turnover between APEC and the EU.
Though the country signed up for APEC in 1998, it showed no real interest in the grouping until around 2007, when it volunteered to host this year’s summit.
Twenty heads of state, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – a proxy for President Barack Obama, who opted out, citing campaign reasons – converged on Vladivostok on Friday to discuss a sweeping agenda that includes trade liberalization, food safety, global supply chains and innovation.
But the APEC is pointedly non-political and the forum’s decisions are not binding for its members, which takes the edge off the summit.
The Russian government has high hopes for investors who would support its development plans in the Far East, where Chinese, Japanese and Korean money has so far been scarce due to a dismal investment climate.
“Vladivostok should become the investment capital of Russia,” First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said ahead of the event.
But the authorities are unlikely to move beyond general declarations and elaborate on the actual benefits and conditions for potential investors at the summit, said Andrei Ostrovsky of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The 109-Year-Old Dream
From a brand new university campus housing the event to free French cuisine for journalists, the APEC summit in Vladivostok cuts an impressive sight.
The price tag for the event stands at 680 billion ($21 billion) – $7 billion more than for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Most of the money went into construction, including the immaculate campus and two billion-dollar bridges that now dominate the Vladivostok landscape, like bits of San Francisco grafted onto a Soviet city.
“Vladivostok has been waiting for the bridge since 1903,” Putin quipped at a press conference on Friday.
“It feels like a completely new city now,” said Lyudmila Toporkova, a Vladivostok resident for four decades, her tone a mixture of awe and dismay.
But much of the city remains unchanged, and many construction projects were not finished on time, such as the new opera house. Whether the lucrative funding will dry up after the summit remains to be seen. Putin dodged the question during his press conference on Friday.
Most locals drudgingly praise the bridge, but miss no opportunity to take a stab at the corruption and embezzlement that building it must have involved. They point out that the city’s numerous beggars and diasporas, from the Chinese to the Uzbek to what-have-you, were expelled for the duration of the summit.
The Wild East
Vladivostok, the capital of the Primorye Region, was a naval base in Soviet times, but when the military-industrial complex unraveled in the 1990s, it was left with nothing.
But the locals adapted, like they always have since the mid-19th century, when Russians first began to populate the remote region, then inhabited only by a handful of Korean settlers and small tribes of indigenous people.
“The ocean’s on three sides here, there’s nowhere to run,” said a city official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment on the intricacies of the local character. “It’s sink or swim.”
“The world thinks we wear animal skins here,” he added. “But we’re Europeans… just a bit different.”
The region survived thanks to its decrepit but functioning fishing fleet and its proximity to Japan and its used car market. Most Russians east of Urals now sport left-hand drive SUVs imported through Primorye.
Yet the region’s population still plummeted from 2.2 million to 1.9 million between 1989 and 2010, while corruption bloomed.
“Everybody who could get out of here did so,” said car dealer Sergei, embellishing his tirade with a spit and a train of obscenities directed at the powers that be. Tellingly, Sergei himself stayed.
There is no love lost between the Primorye Region and the Kremlin. The ruling United Russia Party lost to the communists in the regional capital of Vladivostok at the parliamentary elections last winter, and Putin received 47 percent of the votes at the presidential polls in March – 16 percent below the national average.
The region was also among the first to go protesting on the streets, four years ahead of Moscow with its mass opposition rallies of the recent months.
Some 7,000 rallied in Vladivostok, a city of 600,000, in 2008 to protest a governmental crackdown on the car import industry. Riot police had to be flown in from Moscow because their local counterparts refused to take truncheons to fellow Primorye residents.
The industry still shrunk under new tariffs, costing the region at least 10,000 jobs, said Maxim Vedenyov of the TIGR nongovernmental group, which spearheaded the protest efforts.
Russian carmaker Sollers opened a state-subsidized factory in the region, but it only generated 2,000 jobs, according to the company.
Even geographically, Primorye is isolated from Moscow: a plane ticket averages 30,000 to 35,000 rubles ($950 to $1,100), while the average salary in the region stands at 27,000 rubles.
Walk the Talk
The government realizes it has the work cut out for it. Putin pledged on Friday to develop the regional transportation infrastructure, invest in high-tech enterprises and turn the new university into a global knowledge hub, all to boost the local economy.
But not one of the dozen Vladivostok residents interviewed by RIA Novosti admitted to having high hopes for the region’s economic future.
“They’ve ignored us for so long, and now they come to us and ask us what we want,” the city administration source said. “Let them put their money where their mouth is.”
The summit kicked off with a drizzle, but the skies cleared on Thursday, when Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived – and the locals doubt that even that’s a coincidence.
“They may have dispersed the clouds like they do in Moscow,” said Toporkova as she strolled the sunlit Fokin Street with her grandson. “Not that we’re complaining,” she added with a moment’s hesitation, eyeing the sky with the distrustful look of someone not used to things going her way.