Dispatch

Russia’s Bridge to Nowhere

A facelift ahead of this year's Asia-Pacific summit can't mask the fact that Vladivostok, Russia's easternmost city, is slowly dying.

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Tears ran down Nadezhda Voronstova's face as she recounted her story with a sense of bitterness and hopelessness. The trouble started last month when two men who introduced themselves as representatives of the Ministry of Regional Development broke the news that Moscow had decided to demolish her house along with her entire village on Russky Island, just off the coast of the Russian city of Vladivostok, the site of this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

The 52-year-old Vorontsova intended to spend the rest of her peaceful life with her daughter and grandson in their house on mostly uninhabited island in the Sea of Japan, 4,000 miles east of Moscow. She and her fellow homeowners wrote a letter to Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asking for protection -- to no avail. Looking in the direction of a luxurious new convention center, just a couple kilometers away from her, where Vladimir Putin and the 21 other APEC leaders will meet, Vorontsova repeated between her sobs: "I will burn myself together with this house and maybe then Putin will realize what they do to our little human lives!"

She's particularly vexed by the fact that her village is slated to be razed to the ground after the summit takes place. Reportedly, the plan is to build a tourist resort and several private villas on the site.

Alexaner Ozhegov, a spokesman with the ministry of regional development in Vladivostok, dismissed their pleas. "Oh, what they say is nothing but a soap opera. We have a written decision regarding that village signed by a minister," he said in an interview.

Vladivostok is located near Russia's borders with China and North Korea and with easy sea access to Japan. After the city's founding in 1860, it took Russians about a decade to expel Chinese and Manchus from the territory they populated for decades. Vladivosotok, known for its beautiful sea views, is home to the Russian Pacific Fleet and is the country's main Pacific port. In Soviet times, the city was closed to foreign visitors due to its strategic importance. Today, hundreds of foreign tourists arrive every week on giant cruise ships from Australia and North America. Given the difficulties of governing a city so far from Moscow, there's been serious consideration in recent years about whether it would be better for Vladivostok, and the entire Primorye region, to be handed to China on some sort of a long-term lease.

All of which is to say that to understand what happened to Vorontsova's village, it's necessary to understand the larger state of affairs in eastern Russia. Since 1992, the population of Russia's easternmost region, Primorye, has shrunk by 352,000 people to less than two million. Many of the departed are disillusioned youth who flee to Moscow, St. Petersburg or abroad after graduating high school. A recent poll showed 40 percent of the region's people are looking to pack their luggage and leave. In order to stop the brain drain, Russian authorities decided to build a better-looking façade on the Asian end of the country. In the past five years, Moscow has spent over $20 billion worth of new roads, bridges and buildings in the province in the lead-up to the summit.

The campus for the APEC summit is the crown jewel of this effort to beautify the struggling region. Despite complications during construction including a bridge fire and a road collapse during a severe rainstorm, the new, spectacular campus was completed on time to host the summit for a week on the island. Putin intends to use the summit to position Russia as a Pacific power and is looking to deals to provide natural gas to China and Russia. The government is promising upgrades to airports, seaports, and transportation links throughout Russia's vast east. But the changes so far have been mostly cosmetic, and as usual, for projects of this size, some powerful interests have managed to enrich themselves in the process.

"The scenario had been already well rehearsed at the Olympic construction in Sochi: Moscow decided who would get kick-backs from federal finance; to get rid of villages on the island, Moscow offered money; several sub-contract companies in Vladivostok went bankrupt during APEC construction, as Moscow did not pay the promised fees," said Mikhail Tersky, an academic and director of a local policy think tank. The APEC 2012 construction budget turned out to be five times larger than originally announced by the Kremlin five years ago. "At least half of Moscow's money was stolen," Tersky concluded.

It's not as if there's a shortage of problems to throw money at in Vladivostok. The city's population of 592,000 suffers crippling traffic jams, there's no public transportation after 9 p.m, there's a shortage of affordable housing -- even the local kindergartens require bribes before your child can enroll.

In light of these problems, many find it baffling that Moscow elected to pour money into building the world's longest cable suspension bridge to connect the city to an island with fewer than 5,000 people. The grandiose bridge will be mainly used by a few thousand students at Far Eastern Federal University, who will move to the campus when APEC is over. "It would be difficult to think of a more absurd and expensive project; of taking such giant investments away from already isolated Primorye region on to even more isolated island," said former Kremlin's administration advisor for Far East project, Yuri Krupnov, who was a critic of the project.

The Kremlin may have dreams of turning Vladivostok into Russia's San Francisco -- complete with an iconic bridge -- but it's still not clear what economic role the region can play. Before 2008, Far East businessmen benefitted from importing nearly 500,000 second-hand Japanese cars a year and sold them in throughout Russia. In fact, the flow of cheap and good quality cars threatened to devaluate the entire domestic automobile industry. To put an end to the practice, Moscow authorities increased the import tax for the Far East from 5 percent to nearly 30 percent, leaving thousands out of work. Thousands of angry car dealers flooded the streets and protesters blocked Primorye's highways and railways. It did not take Russian parliament long to accuse Vladivostok of plotting an "Orange Revolution."

Moscow responded to the disturbance by sending in police special forces, who "violently beat and detained dozens, to make a clear point that nobody in Moscow cares about what people in Far East think of Moscow's state policy," opposition leader Alexander Samsonov recalled. Both he and his cousin were beaten and detained several times for organizing street protests in Vladivostok. The regional economy has never recovered from the shock of 2008.

This weekend, sitting down with his guests and enjoying spectacular view over picturesque Ajaks Bay, Putin may not be aware that just a mile away, inside the walls of buildings freshly painted in happy colors for the summit, the ceilings of private apartments are caving in. Even the program director of the APEC summit admitted in an interview with me that the Russky Island facility is "a pure Potemkin Village," referring to the fake facades built to impress Empress Catherine II on her way to Crimea in 1787.

The glitz of the summit cannot mask the slow death of this city, but for now, Vladivostok residents are doing their best to enjoy their moment in the spotlight. With world leaders visiting this week, the main streets were cleaned up and groomed, music, circus and laser shows were held on the city's embankment.

"With all massive corruption scams around it, without APEC, Vladivostok might have lost five times more people this year," Tersky said, looking at the bright side.

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/GettyImages

Dispatch

Turkish Dilemma

Turkey's voluble prime minister has talked himself into a corner on Syria. Will the spiraling unrest next door finally force him to back up his words?

ISTANBUL — On Sept. 4 in Ankara, in a meeting with members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan loudly threw down a gauntlet for next-door neighbor President Bashar al-Assad.

"The massacres in Syria that gain strength from the international community's indifference are continuing to increase," he said. "The regime in Syria has now become a terrorist state. We do not have the luxury to be indifferent to what is happening there."

It was the culmination of increasingly strong rhetoric from a highly conservative yet completely overextended leader who seems to want both political stability in Syria -- and the central hero's role in bringing down the Assad regime.

Erdogan complains that he has received little support from Turkey's allies. On Sept. 5, he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the United States "lacked initiative" in dealing with the crisis in Syria. "There are certain things being expected from the United States. The United States had not yet catered to those expectations," he said. "Maybe it's because of the pre-election situation."

The latest rhetoric has sent nervous waves down the Bosphorus, where Erdogan has faced growing criticism from liberal political elites.

"There's no push within the country for him to go into Syria," says Soli Ozel, a political commentator and professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

Erdogan once touted a "no problems with neighbors" foreign policy that emphasized removing longstanding points of tension with surrounding countries, including Syria. But with the advent of the Arab Spring, he strongly supported revolutionaries working to topple the established order.

Today, the Turkish premier is aiming to be "a central diplomatic figure with good ties to both the West and the Middle East, who can eliminate problems on his borders," according to  Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And certainly there are ways that Syria could work out that would allow him to emerge as the victor in all of this ... But there's also certain ways it could work out that creates a lot of messiness for him."

Since the Syrian crisis erupted last March, Erdogan has, more than any other leader, walked a tightrope between intervention and isolationism. In late June, after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet, he swore that any Syrian military unit approaching the border "will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target." However, he also said Syrian helicopters had infiltrated Turkish airspace five times, without any retaliation.

It's no easy task: Erdogan must balance a desire to take a leadership role in Syria while simultaneously appeasing disgruntled voters with no desire to get involved in an escalating quagmire. He must also manage the influx of more than 80,000 Syrian refugees who continue to stream across the border into the Turkish province of Hatay, straining a region where schools and hospitals are overcrowded and Arabic is now as common on public buses as Turkish.

"People in Turkey don't want a rushed intervention in Syria. Most Turks are worried about getting mired," says Salman Shaikh, director at the Brookings Institution's office in Doha. He added, however, that Assad might beat them to intervention -- exporting security threats into Turkey to retaliate for Ankara's support to Syrian opposition fighters.

Even as Erdogan works to enhance Turkey's influence in the Arab world, he is also taking aggressive steps to transform its domestic politics. He has pushed Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim, in a more socially conservative direction, sparking controversy in May by calling for restrictions on abortion, equating it with murder. For years, he has faced liberal criticism over his endorsement of headscarves, worn by his wife and daughters.

In Istanbul's trendier cafes, it has become a source of amusement. Socially liberal Turks joke that the volume of the daily call to prayer has been turned up to unconscionable levels in a misguided attempt to get non-observant Muslims to pay attention.

Combined with his support for a predominantly Sunni uprising in Syria, the effect has been to cast Erdogan as a figure bent on imposing his religious views across not only his own country, but the entire Middle East.

All in all, the prime minister and his party "have been singularly failing in convincing the country that the policies they're pursuing are correct," Ozel says. "And that includes the people who actually constitute his base."

But it might not be Erdogan's obvious desire to topple the Assad regime that finally spurs Turkish involvement in Syria. Experts say it's likely that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish liberation movement that is listed as an official terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, is working with Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

"In the north, [the Assad regime] has allotted five provinces to the Kurds, to the terrorist organization," Erdogan told a Turkish television station in July. Would he attack fleeing rebels if they attacked the Turkish side? "That's not even a matter of discussion, it is a given," he replied.

"Looking at foreign intervention in Syria, the whole Kurdish issue might be the entree point, especially for Turkey," says Shaikh.

For centuries, Kurds have been pariahs in highly nationalist Turkey. The possibility of the PKK reestablishing its ties with the Assad regime, which had been severed in the late 1990s, and continuing its decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state from northern Syria is seen as a grave threat by Turkish leaders.

Erdogan "still doesn't have the backing and support for an intervention," Shaikh says. "But this issue rubs up against vital national security interest."

As the Turkish premier ponders his next move, fighting between the PKK and Turkish army has also spiked. On Sept. 6, Reuters reported that more than 2,000 Turkish soldiers, accompanied by fighter jets and helicopters, attacked PKK positions in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. On Sept. 2, 20 PKK militants and 10 soldiers were killed in a coordinated PKK attack in southeast Sirnak province.

In Ankara, officials have decried the rise in violence as a mirror of the escalating conflict next door. In July, Erdogan accused the regime of allowing PKK militants to cross the border and operate alongside the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliated group, in embattled northern Syria.

"There's more tension developing here, which points to there being a PKK offshoot, the PYD, which is trying to dominate everything the Kurds are doing inside Syria," Alterman says.

Of the estimated 2 million Kurds in Syria, Alterman says, most "want to be a part of the opposition and the revolution and the Syria of the future. But this is becoming difficult after the efforts of the PKK offshoot to dominate the regime."

The Syrian president has been known to stir trouble with the Kurds as a way of getting Turkey's attention. Assad has a long history of using the Kurdish question -- arguably the most convoluted, long-running of Turkey's foreign policy issues -- to bait Erdogan.

Assad's strategy "to provoke problems and get paid off for no longer provoking problems," Alterman says. "What we've seen in the last year is more PKK activity [allowed in Syria] intended to punish Turkey. The Kurdish issue is a friction point in all of this, a tool that people use to get back at each other."

Assad has worked to create friction between Arabs and Kurds by distributing weapons to Arabs, Alterman notes, and telling them the Kurds are going to try and dominate them. Alterman warns that an Arab-Kurd conflagration in Syria "might not be far away."

As these issues come to a head, Erdogan will be faced with a tough decision: Intervene and risk the wrath of his electorate, or stand by and watch as Syria explodes in his face. In the meantime, Erdogan's tightrope will grow thinner and wobblier.

NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/GettyImages