It looks like Russia, this city of tall Europeans who walk among the pastel-coloured buildings that line streets with names like Pushkin, Gogol and Lenin. But the poshest hotel in Vladivostok is called the Hyundai and sushi bars are starting to rival borscht-and-vodka joints for supremacy.
Pastels and Lenin statues aside, the Kremlin wants you to know that Vladivostok is very much part of Asia and also Russia’s to develop. By September, when world leaders arrive for the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, this sagging port city – the home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet – will have undergone a $23-billion facelift intended to help Vladivostok live up to a name that translates to Lord of the East.
It will be the first time that Russia, whose capital, Moscow, is the largest city in Europe, will host an organization intended to promote trade among the economies of the Pacific Rim.
Russia’s leaders, like Canada’s, oversee a stalling but resource-rich economy. And Moscow’s strategy is the same as Ottawa’s: to try and escape Europe’s growing financial crisis by turning toward Asia, the last functioning engine of global growth. Tired of Western criticism of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism, the Kremlin also finds it easier to deal with neighbours such as China, Japan and North and South Korea that see little need to raise human-rights concerns when there's business to be done.
Vladivostok is at the centre of Russia’s plans to embrace its oriental side. Those overseeing the project say the modernization of the city – a naturally beautiful port scarred by decades of misguided Soviet development – is the biggest construction effort in Russia since the fall of the USSR.
“The summit itself is a testament to Russia’s interest, and Putin’s interest, in this part of Russia and this part of the world,” said Dmitry Trenin, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “Anything that helps bolster Russia’s position in Asia-Pacific is being used.”
There’s an equally important domestic impetus behind the Kremlin’s sudden interest in the eastern fringes of this sprawling country. Though Vladivostok is Russian in culture and appearance, the city is seven time zones and more than 9,500 kilometres from Moscow, but only a short flight from Seoul.
And with only 6.6 million (and falling) Russians living on a vast territory separated by an oft-disputed border from more than 65 million Chinese – in the provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin alone – there’s an anxious feeling in Moscow that it needs to turn its attention to its dilapidated Far East before its fast-growing and resource-hungry neighbour does.
Russia’s renewed interested in its eastern frontier “is an attempt to solve several strategic problems at once,” said Alexander Latkin, an economist at the Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service. “The first task is to promote co-operation with our Asian neighbours. The second task is to preserve the Far East for Russia.”
The project is also deeply personal to Mr. Putin. In 2010, he drove a yellow Lada sedan along Russia’s border with China in a high-profile bit of nation-building. It was a road trip aimed at highlighting Russia’s Asian face to domestic television audiences while at the same time reminding the region that this distant territory is considered as Russian as Red Square.
Mr. Putin is in the midst of a presidential campaign, and facing unexpected opposition in the form of street protests around the country ahead of a March 4 vote. But most pundits believe he will survive the challenge and remain in power for at least another term. (Polls suggest the former KGB agent, who previously served as president from 2000 to 2008 before becoming Prime Minister for the past four years, is still the country’s most popular politician.)
The Kremlin’s coffers have been opened wide for what strategists have taken to calling the country’s Eastern Front. Vladivostok, a city that a few years ago was without even a functioning sewage system, will soon have a new airport, new highways linking it to the rest of the Far East and Siberia, as well as an overhauled electricity grid powered by a newly built gas pipeline from nearby Sakhalin Island. The crumbling tsarist-era city centre will be restored, and two spectacular new bridges that recall those of another port, San Francisco, will be built across Golden Horn Bay, the Pacific inlet that juts into the centre of the city.
One of those bridges will connect old Vladivostok to Russkiy Island, a long-closed Soviet naval base that has been renovated into a modern mini-city that will host the APEC delegates. When the three-day summit ends, the sprawling site will be quickly converted into the new home of the Far Eastern Federal University, which Russia hopes will become an education and research hub that will draw students from across the Asia-Pacific region.
“Lenin said that Vladivostok is far away, but it’s ours. Mr. Putin said that if there was no such thing as the APEC summit, we would have to have invented it, to create such infrastructure here,” said Eduard Lisogor, deputy director for the Far East at the Ministry for Regional Development, and the man overseeing the APEC construction.
The summit follows a diplomatic and commercial push by Mr. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev (the two men plan to flip jobs this year) that has seen China surpass Germany as Russia's largest trading partner.
The Kremlin has also used its unique influence over North Korea to push a pipeline project that will ship Russian gas across North Korean territory to Seoul. The recently deceased Kim Jong-il, for instance, is believed to have been born in Siberia, and the family dynasty was installed by Stalin after the Second World War. Russia also sent its first-ever delegation to this year's meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
But turning a country where nearly 80 per cent of the population lives to the east across the Ural Mountains in Europe into an Asian power isn't as simple as holding a summit and opening some pipelines. For most of the region, Russia remains an afterthought. Asia has a new centre of gravity that Moscow can’t hope to compete with: Beijing.
While the Kremlin plans to wow Asian leaders with its lavish party on Russkiy Island this fall, those who live in Vladivostok are realistic about their role in the region.
“We used to think of the Chinese as impoverished. … Now when we go to China, they receive us at a banquet and put 20 dishes on the table,” said Prof. Latkin of Vladivostok State University. “And when they come here, we can’t afford to do the same.”