John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Russian bridge of trouble opens to world

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the opening of the Russky Island Bridge on July 2. Photo / AP
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the opening of the Russky Island Bridge on July 2. Photo / AP

In Vladivostok, the locals now call it Scandal Road - a section of a newly-constructed motorway that suddenly collapsed after heavy rains in June.

Fittingly, the route connects with the Russian city's other Apec-related white elephant, the $1.3 billion so-called Bridge to Nowhere.

With Russia hosting next weekend's annual meeting of Asia and Pacific Rim leaders for the first time in Vladivostok, President Vladimir Putin is sparing no expense on ensuring the summit runs smoothly and showing his and the sprawling country's best face.

But preparations have been marred by a number of blunders, mishaps and lingering questions about the huge budget for the event and the long-term value of some of the building projects, especially the construction of a suspension bridge between Vladivostok and nearby Russky Island, where the leaders, along with their foreign and trade ministers, will be meeting.

The Russian Government has spent a staggering $23 billion - roughly a third of what the New Zealand Government spends in total in a year - on its chairmanship of Apec.

Most of this budget has been devoted to infrastructure projects in and around Vladivostok, a port city of two million people.

There was embarrassment over the slump of part of the new 26km road from the city's upgraded airport - prompting the Scandal Road tag amid speculation the contractors might have taken short-cuts.

Meanwhile, construction of a new five-star Hyatt Hotel has been reported to be so far behind schedule it will not be ready in time for the summit.

However, most of the questioning by the Russian media has centred on the brand new suspension bridge, which, with a span of just over 1km, is the longest of its type in the world.

A massive complex has been built on Russky Island, including meeting halls, an international press centre and accommodation and restaurants to house and feed the leaders, their delegations and accompanying media.

The island, with a population of only 5000, was previously reached by ferry.

The building of the bridge, largely done by cheap foreign labour from central Asian countries, sparked angry clashes between workers and security staff over pay and conditions.

Part of the bridge caught fire during construction, but there was no damage to the core structure or the support columns, which are as high as Paris' Eiffel Tower.

After Apec delegates have packed their bags and departed, the complex will become the site of a new university, which Russia hopes will become a centre of technological and research excellence and spawn new industries to boost the sagging economy of Russia's far eastern region.

John Armstrong

- NZ Herald

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