Pinoys and Putin: Glitz hides Russia's troubles
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - President Vladimir Putin impressed leaders by holding an Asian summit on an island off a revamped Pacific city but the surface shimmer hid underlying problems in the Russian Far East and the country as a whole.
Putin realised his long-time ambition of hosting the leaders of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group in the military port of Vladivostok on the Pacific, once a town off-limits to foreigners.
Moreover, the summit saw the building of $20-billion in new infrastructure including two major bridges built in the port city that would breathe new life into a remote region bordering China and North Korea.
"Vladivostok was a closed city, a naval port, which foreigners were not permitted to enter. For decades the city was in a decaying state," Putin, clearly happy with the event, told reporters in a final news conference.
"What we are doing now are the first attempts to change this situation, in a cardinal way," he said after hosting figures including Chinese President Hu Jintao and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Putin first discussed the idea of hosting an APEC summit with then US President George Bush during a G8 summit in Saint Petersburg before the global economic crisis in 2006. Back then, it looked nothing more than a pipe dream.
Even central Russia had few places to host global leaders, to say nothing of the Far East.
Putin opted to host the summit on Russky Island off Vladivostok, until recently a virtual no man's land littered with crumbled barracks and rusty ships.
In time for the event, it was made into a modern summit venue complete with manicured lawns and scenic vistas. Hotel staff were flown in from the Philippines, and a French chef from a Parisian restaurant consulted the Russians on the summit menu.
This schmoozing with world leaders boosted Putin, who turns 60 on October 7 but faces a potentially turbulent autumn of protests against his rule and increased criticism from a emboldened opposition.
Critics at home queued up to say the summit was an unaffordable luxury, pointing to a dearth of money to conduct pension reform, among other pressing issues.
"Do we have that much money?" prominent commentator Yulia Latynina said on Moscow Echo radio, implying that the summit was little more than a show-off designed to impress foreign powers.
Vladivostok resident Yekaterina Lazeba expressed a similar sentiment, saying the spectacular fireworks display late Saturday that cost 275 million rubles ($8.5 million) was simply an affront to locals.
"275 million rubles for a celebration lasting 19 minutes is a true insult for people here," Lazeba told AFP.
Putin's close ally and pointman for the event, first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov, went on the defensive when asked if Russia could afford to host such a costly event.
"This is a provocative question," Shuvalov, who was in charge of the preparations, told AFP. "Russia is doing what it ought to do."
Putin openly acknowledged that parts of the city were still in disrepair and the shortcomings were even evident at the summit venue on Russky Island, which will in the future house a university campus.
"What has been done are just the first steps on this path to develop Vladivostok," he said. "Even here (in the university) it all looks good but I know after the downpours yesterday there are leaks, questions about drainage."
Veteran Kremlin reporter Andrei Kolesnikov, alluding to Putin's recent stunt during which he took to the controls of a hang-glider to guide Siberian cranes on their winter migration wrote ironically in Kommersant newspaper:
"From a white crane's eye view, the city looks at least satisfactory."