Russian Port Battles Remoteness

Vladivostok grapples with shortages and strained ties with Moscow in its bid to join prosperous Pacific Rim

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IN comparison to the economically depressed cities of Siberia, this port at the eastern end of the trans-Siberian railroad has the look of prosperity.

People here have grasped market principles quickly, as the old planned economic system falls by the wayside. Japanese cars swarm the streets, and an abundance of sidewalk kiosks offers imported food. Meanwhile, a sign outside one of the several stores undergoing renovation in the city center says, "Coming soon: Magic Burger." Such indicators of market activity are lacking in Siberia, where people are more reluctant to shed the Communist practices of the past.

Amid the economic bustle, however, was a sign that Vladivostok's prosperous facade has a shaky foundation. The eternal flame - a World War II memorial present in every big Russian city - was not burning here because of a lack of fuel.

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"The shortage of energy resources is a big problem all over the Maritime Region, and we are trying to do everything to alleviate this problem," says Yekaterina Akhiayeva, press secretary for the regional administration.

As "the Gateway to the Pacific," the Russian Far East has the potential to become one of the nation's most affluent regions. Vladivostok, in particular, is ideally situated geographically for the conduct of foreign trade. In addition to location, the population of the region appears more predisposed to market economics, perhaps because of the proximity to Pacific Rim nations.

But the lack of resources is preventing the Far East from fully realizing its growth potential. With few deposits of fuel, the Far East has always been dependent for its energy supplies on other regions of Russia. During the Communist era, when Moscow directed nearly all aspects of the economy, energy supplies were regular. The introduction of market reforms, however, destroyed old supply links, leaving Far Eastern cities in the cold.

The energy shortage in the Maritime Region is so acute that there is rarely hot water in summer, and heating is minimal in winter, residents say. In addition, the remoteness of the Far East makes Vladivostok one of the most expensive cities in Russia.

"The only people who really live well in this region are the sailors because they can go abroad and can earn hard currency," says Yekaterina Zibareva, a clerk at Vladivostok's railway station. "There is a large gap between rich and poor here," she continues, "and most of the people are barely able to survive."

Maritime Region officials are struggling to reestablish ties with other areas of the country. Their task is made more difficult because the central government in Moscow, located almost 6,000 miles to the west, is offering little help, Ms. Akhiayeva says.

"We've been separated from Moscow involuntarily," she says. "Moscow is telling us we must solve our own problems."

To break free from the restraints on economic development, the area needs at least $15 million in foreign investment for the modernization of power stations, local energy officials say. One plan under consideration is the development of the region's hydroelectric potential, says Yuri Basharov, director of the Dalenergo energy concern. Ms. Akhiayeva says another energy option is the construction of a small, underground nuclear reactor.

Solving the energy problem would be a major step, but several other factors hinder growth in Vladivostok, officials say.

Though Vladivostok currently enjoys extensive contacts with China, Japan, and other Asian nations, the city needs to break out of its virtual isolation from the rest of Russia. "We can't say we're totally alone," Akhiayeva says, "but most economic links have been broken with all regions, except those nearest us."

The city also needs major infrastructure improvements to promote foreign trade. Civilian communications and accommodations standards here are far below those in many Siberian cities, principally because of Vladivostok's status as the headquarters of the Soviet Pacific Fleet.

Until this year, the city was closed to foreigners because of the Soviet Union's obsession for secrecy around its military establishment. As a result, there are no hotels in the city that meet Western standards, and telephone communications are antiquated. Direct communications not only with foreign nations, but with even Moscow, are unavailable.

Though the city has opened up to foreigners, some in Vladivostok view the continued presence of the Russian Navy as an obstacle to growth. Tension between the civilian population and the Navy has risen following the massive explosion this spring at an naval ammunitions dump on the city's outskirts. "Many people wouldn't mind seeing the military leave," Akhiayeva says, "but others believe the Navy's presence is a stabilizing factor."

Capt. Viktor Ryzhkov, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet, says the Navy's continued presence in Vladivostok would not be a detriment to economic expansion. Since Vladivostok's founding in 1860, the Pacific Fleet has helped build up the city, and will continue to do so, Captain Ryzhkov says.

"Many think the Navy just consumes resources, but it also creates. It builds housing, schools, theaters, and stores," he says. "The destinies of the city and the Fleet were combined long ago and to separate them now would be impossible."

Last in a five-part series.

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