Seven months out from this year’s APEC conference, secured for Vladivostok by Vladimir Putin, whose likely return to the presidency next month means he will ultimately get to attend it, too, the city is a hive of construction activity.

Standing at the east side of Zolotoy Rog Bay you can view its new cable-stayed bridge, still incomplete, reaching out to itself from either shore. From the Eagle’s Nest, widely and incorrectly considered to be the city’s highest point, one can just make out the second, larger bridge through the haze, spanning the length between the mainland and Russky Island, where the conference is to be held.

Looming over the Eastern Bosphoros, this latter cable-stayed bridge is to be the largest of its kind. Whether it is finished before the conference, however, remains to be seen. From the contractors to the region’s governor to the once and future president himself, almost everyone involved in the project has spent the better part of the past three years ensuring anyone who cares to listen that everything is running according to schedule.

The unfinished cable bridge across Zolotoy Rog Bay (Pic: Melanie Cook)

But even before President Dmitry Medvedev signed off on its construction in March 2008, there were questions about the viability, not only of the bridge, which The New York Times has previously compared to Alaska’s famous one to nowhere, but of the rest of the $6 billion program of developments, which include a new opera theatre and medical facilities on the island, as well.

Russia’s famous, seemingly intractable corruption and bureaucratic backwardness have been, as one might expect, a hurdle. One month before Medvedev gave the green light to the larger of the two bridges, an audit of the city’s conference preparations found that only six of 36 related construction projects had properly documented. The global financial crisis didn’t help, either, with the government scaling back the budget of the development even as the company contracted to build the bridges started to express doubts about getting them built in time.

In 2009, St Petersburg started getting mentioned as a more suitable location for the conference. The infrastructure was already in place. The federal budget wouldn’t be so violently hit. The fact that St Petersburg was about as far from Russia’s Asia-Pacific region as was geographically possible given the circumstances didn’t seem to factor into the discussions.

But Russia’s national pride did. First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov shot down the suggestion. Putin secured the thing for Vladivostok and he’d be damned if Vladivostok wasn’t going to host it. Also, you know, it’s a national priority to develop the Russian Far East, or something like that …

It just doesn’t feel that way on the ground. The ground feels rather muddier than all that. That’s because the bridges are only the most obvious examples of the construction fervour currently gripping the city. Vladivostok itself is all front, like a Hollywood western set. That includes the house of Yul Brynner, who was born here, and who spent the better part of his life on such backlots. Actually, I tell a lie: I never got to see Brynner’s childhood home, now a museum, as it was blocked from view by the wall of a wooden runway built for pedestrians so they might avoid the ubiquitous roadworks.

Such runways line every second street of the city, making it impossible for men of my height, or for fur-clad women in too-tall hats, to get around without developing a stoop. Behind them, workmen toil in the cold and damp. And so the Russian Far East develops, too.

But it all seems, well, too little, too late. Vladivostok has the air, not of a city on the move, but of a city slighted. No one believes that the APEC spend has anything to do with strengthening the region. It’s all about strengthening the country within a region it’s only nominally a part of. (In this sense, it makes slightly more sense than the similarly ludicrous spend in Sochi, which is to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and has recently been letting Putin go bobsledding to prove it, but only slightly.)

As far away from European Russia as any other part of Russia outside of Kamchatka can be — six time zones from Moscow, but only a seven-hour, many-checkpointed drive to Pyongyang — Vladivostok is nevertheless a very European city. Where Eastern Siberia has an air of the multicultural about it, the once-closed seaport decidedly does not.

For an Australian, it is not an especially difficult place to understand: it is an outpost, an unlikely and curious byproduct of imperialism, connected by culture to the culture that begat it but separated from it by thousands of kilometres. But where Australia is now Australia, Vladivostok is still Russia, and Russia has allowed it to languish.

Every proclamation from politicians in the Far West has necessarily been met with a degree of cynicism. The aforementioned New York Times article is full of examples: the financial expert worried about overreach, the old ice fisherman who doesn’t want his peace and quiet shattered. Hell, Lonely Planet’s guide to Russia is full of them and the guide book is hardy known for its foreign correspondence. (Seriously, though, this guide is quite the work of subversive literature, at least as far as such works go.) The irony wasn’t lost on me when the coat-check girl at our first bar in Russia asked where we were from and how we liked Vladivostok thus far. “We’re from Australia,” I said, “and we think this town’s great.” She looked at us as though we were insane. “I can’t wait to get out of here,” she said.

This combination of angst, cynicism and rejection makes the city a perfect breeding ground for anti-government sentiment. Indeed, Vladivostok has long been one of the hubs of such sentiment in the country. The world may have been captivated by Moscow’s recent protests against the current prime minister’s return to his former office, but Vladivostok has been taking it out and mixing it up against the current regime for years.

In 2008, Putin flew groups of riot police to the city to face off against a thousand protesters who had adopted the slogan: “United Russia can go to hell.” Fewer protesters have turned out recently, and in any case the Kremlin has had more pressing turn-outs to deal with, but the authorities have nevertheless considered it necessary to hold some of their bought-and-paid-for rallies in the city anyway.

In a city that delivered Putin’s United Russia party a mere 33% of its vote in December, but where opposition rallies are usually limited to a couple of hundred people, between 2000 and 3000 turned up in order to support the country’s next president. Videos later surfaced online of many such attendees being paid. But this is hardly news. Pro-Putin rallies are fast becoming a major source of income for a striking number of Russia’s workers.

That those of Primorsky Krai, the region of which Vladivostok is the administrative capital, felt that they, too, could do with the money says rather more about the national priority to develop the region than those who proclaimed it might like to admit. And so the archaic classical recording plays the Vladivostok-Moscow train out of town …

*Matthew Clayfield has worked as a freelance correspondent in the US, Mexico and Cuba, and will cover the Russian presidential elections for Crikey

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