John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Hi-de-hi from Putins, the pollies' paradise


Hi-de-hi, ho-de-ho. In the 1980s hit comedy series, they called it Maplins. You could label the latest variation on a British working-class holiday camp as Putins. It is surely the closest thing to a holiday camp for politicians. It is certainly the most expensive ever built. And there is definitely nothing working class about it.

You can buy an awful lot for $27 billion - the size of Russian President Vladimir Putin's budget for this year's Apec summit in Vladivostok in his country's far east.

You can buy seclusion. Much of the money has been spent on building a huge conference complex on Russky Island, which is now connected to the mainland by a massive new $1.3 billion suspension bridge.

The buildings will soon be transformed into a very large university. But for this weekend they will house the couple of thousand leaders, officials, diplomats and journalists who have descended on Vladivostok for the annual regional economic summit - along with hundreds of volunteers dressed in the Russian national colours of red, white and blue who are having a hard job not tripping over one another such is their number.

At Putins, the leaders of the free world and not so free world (or at least the Asian and Pacific parts of it), want for nothing.

They can do what they like doing best: feeling important, manufacturing "crises" which they can then claim credit for solving, and making ego-inflating grand statements for which they will never be held to account.

Even better, there is not a demonstrator in sight to question their supposed wisdom.

Indeed, protesting could be a serious hazard to your health. The island is ringed by warships and S-400 ground-to-air missile launchers, with MiG-31 fighter jets at nearby military bases on alert to scramble at the merest hint of what might look like a terrorist plot.

Little wonder that the RNZAF hired a couple of interpreters to be in the cockpit when John Key's Boeing 757 flew to Vladivostok late on Thursday night.

Such is the artificiality, it is possible to stay on Russky Island and not see anything of the real Russia, except for the antiseptic-looking new motorway from the completely renovated airport which conveniently skirts the city and meets up with the "bridge to nowhere". Barring using the credit card for the accommodation bill, you don't need money on Russky Island. Meals are free to those who are accredited to the event - breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Want to get in touch with the folks back home? Just pop into the international media centre where international calls are also free.

John Key described the complex as "super-impressive". In terms of size, he certainly got the super bit right.

There is a feeling, however, of things being rushed to meet an impossibly tight deadline. The painting and general finishing of the rooms in what will become student accommodation looks less than totally professional. At $330 a night, - the rate for Apec-ers - it is hardly a case of getting what you paid for.

Russky Island falls somewhere between being the eighth wonder of the world and the grand folly of a power-crazy individual.

But Russia's hosting of the event seems so far to be running smoothly, even if the bureaucracy intrudes at times.

This year's Apec does illustrate that Russia has made some major advances since the demise of the Soviet Union. Russky Island may feel a bit like a prison camp. But it sure beats the heck out of the Gulags.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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