Russia raises alarms over crumbling infrastructure

A government report says problems will climax in 2003; urges sweeping change.

Russia is headed into a time when disasters will become commonplace and the nation's woes will accumulate like snowdrifts in a blizzard.

This trend will reach its climax in the year 2003.

That doom-laden forecast comes not from astrologers, but a special commission established by the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. The goal now is to devise ways to avert the expected wave of catastrophes.

"Expert projections show that three major negative trends converge in 2003," says Yuri Vorobyov, first deputy minister of emergency situations. Russia's overstrained infrastructure will be tapped out within two years. At the same time, the country's demographic crisis - a combination of a low birth rate and declining life expectancy, especially among Russian men -will explode, while external debt repayments will reach ruinous levels.

"We have been warning about this for a long time, but it's only since the recent spate of disasters that the matter is being taken seriously," Mr. Vorobyov says.

These disasters include the sinking of the Kursk, one of the largest and most modern nuclear submarines in the Northern Fleet. The sub went down Aug.12, killing all 118 men on board. Then Moscow's Ostankino Tower, Europe's highest structure and a wonder of Soviet engineering, caught fire and burned, knocking out television transmissions for days.

Currently in Russia's Far East, a power crisis has left as many as 80,000 residents without electricity or heat during the coldest winter in 50 years. "We live amid the functioning relics of the Soviet age, as if in a museum, and no one is building anything new," says Alexander Yashin, deputy chair of the Duma's industry and construction committee.

Possible solutions under discussion include mass levies of labor, pleading with the West for a radical debt-restructuring, and countering population decline with mass immigration. Estimates for the cost of arresting the decay run into hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade. But just as infrastructure collapse becomes critical, in 2003, Russia's external debt payments will swell to $17 billion - equal to the entire planned state budget for that year.

At the same time, Russia's shrinking population will cross the line where there are two working-age people for each pensioner. According to Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok, the ratio in 20 years will be one to one, an economically unsupportable balance. "Russia urgently needs to court immigration by able-bodied adults from poorer countries," says Anatoly Antonov, a demography specialist at Moscow State University. "Without such an influx, the growing mass of pensioners will drown any hope of economic growth."

He suggests allowing in millions of workers from nearby overcrowded China. Such an idea is political dynamite in xenophobic Russia, where even people from former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus are often considered unwanted outsiders.

Some commission members argue the need to step up state control over the economy. "Under these circumstances, no liberal reforms are going to work in any case," says Viktor Opekunov, a parliamentary minister with the center-left Otechestvo party and a member of the commission.

Others insist faster market reforms are called for. "We need long-term direct investments, particularly in high technology," says Svetlana Gvozdyeva, deputy chair of the Duma's economic policy commission, and a member of the pro-government Unity party. "We must make Russia a secure and profitable destination for foreign capital."

But some experts think the Duma and the Kremlin are artificially raising the alarm. "Politicians need a slogan to concentrate their minds, hence the 2003 menace," says Rostislav Kapelyashnikov, a specialist at the independent Center for Transitional Economics in Moscow. "All these problems have been with us for some time, and will probably be still growing worse long after 2003 is a bad memory.

"The point is to do something about it, but they're just talking."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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