Insight: Russia ponders the future of its capital

MOSCOW Fri Jul 13, 2012 8:03am EDT

1 of 2. Russian soldiers march during a military parade rehearsal in Red Square Moscow, November 3, 2005.

Credit: Reuters/Viktor Korotayev

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - What do you do when your capital city gets too polluted, too crowded and overrun by traffic? Russia has an answer: Move it, or at least part of it.

Moscow authorities are drawing up plans to move a number of official buildings, including the parliament and some of the government administration, out of the clogged center to a "federal district" that would be built in a southeastern suburb.

Other officials have come up with even more radical ideas, such as moving the capital to the sparsely populated frozen wastes of Siberia or Russia's Far East.

President Vladimir Putin has not yet announced his views on the matter and could yet veto any move. But nothing can be ruled out in a country that has moved its capital before, the last time less than a century ago.

"I believe the capital should be located somewhere further away, in Siberia," Sergei Shoigu said shortly before he took over in March as governor of the Moscow region that surrounds the bustling city of 10.5 million.

Academic Sergei Karaganov says Russia should have three capitals - Moscow as the political, military and diplomatic center; St Petersburg in the west as the cultural center; and the Pacific port city of Vladivostok as the new economic center.

Having a capital close to Asia would reflect a global geopolitical shift in power away from Europe and be in line with Putin's drive to breathe life into parts of Russia that are rich in natural resources but have small populations.

It would also coincide with his efforts to focus more on developing trade and political ties with China.

"If Peter the Great lived now, he would undoubtedly build the capital not in the Baltic region, but by the Pacific Ocean," Karaganov wrote in an essay, referring to the tsar who built St Petersburg as Russia's "window on the West" three centuries ago.

MEDVEDEV'S PLAN

The proposal to move thousands of bureaucrats and their headquarters to an area outside Moscow that is now a wasteland came from Dmitry Medvedev before Putin took over from him as president in May.

Medvedev, who is now prime minister, wants to build the new administrative headquarters five km (three miles) outside the main ring road that encircles Moscow. His plan has now be sent to the Kremlin and its fate lies with the president.

Medvedev has proposed moving government ministries, the presidential administration, government apparatus, Prosecutor General's Office, the federal Investigative Committee and the Audit Chamber outside the center.

A document cited by Kommersant newspaper said a new complex of buildings would cover about 1.25 square miles (3.25 square km), costing 350 billion roubles ($10.67 billion) to build.

The money would not come from the federal budget but from loans to be covered by selling the buildings freed up in Moscow.

Some experts say the real cost of building the infrastructure needed for such a move would be much higher, and fear the size of the contracts involved would make it open to corruption - a problem so widespread that it is almost a national pastime.

Putin has not publicly expressed an opinion on the project but sources close to the Kremlin suggest he has shown little enthusiasm.

"The cost, how long it would take, what the results would be - all this has to be worked out. It's a colossal sum, no one can calculate it," one source close to the Kremlin said.

The resignation of Alexander Kuzmin as Moscow's chief architect, announced on Thursday, could further complicate matters, especially as other experts could follow him. The reason for his departure was not clear.

CALLS FOR ACTION

The gleaming high-rise office blocs and business centers that have sprung up since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 show how far Russia has come since Communist times. They now share the skyline with the golden domes of churches and the square monolithic apartment blocs built in the Soviet era.

But many foreigners are put off coming to Moscow by the high cost of living, snarling traffic, pollution and security concerns - the main airport and the metro have been hit by bombings in recent years blamed on Islamist insurgents.

Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has vowed to improve life in the city and introduced higher fines for traffic offences this month as part of plans to unclog the center. Moscow's territory doubled this month under a redrawing of the map that can be seen as the start of Medvedev's proposal taking off.

But the people of Moscow doubt his plan will be implemented and Russian media have estimated the cost would be $30 billion.

"It'll never happen. Not in my lifetime," said Nikolai Kiselyov, a 35-year-old Moscow resident.

Another, 39-year-old Natalia Kovalyova, shrugged her shoulders as she did her shopping and said: "We hear of all sorts of plans and in the end they come to nothing. We want things to be better but they always turn out the same."

Moscow attracts more investment that any other Russian city and accounts for about one quarter of the country's $1.9 trillion economy.

But a World Bank survey published in June identified Moscow as the worst of 30 Russian cities to do business in - a bad advertisement for a city that Putin and Medvedev want to be a global finance center by 2020.

Many experts say Moscow is paying the price of poor urban planning.

"It became impossible to live and work in Moscow as a result of the irresponsible, even criminal municipal building policy of the last decades," said Alexei Klimenko, a senior architect.

"What's more, people suddenly started buying cars (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) and there's now an unexpected number of them ... It's now an utter catastrophe," he told Ekho Moskvy radio.

PRECEDENTS

If Medvedev's plan is blocked, the more radical ideas of changing the location of the capital might get more of an airing.

There are precedents. Peter the Great stripped Moscow of its status as capital after more than 370 years when he gave the title to St Petersburg in 1712, hoping that being closer to western Europe would help Russia modernize.

Communist leader Vladimir Lenin decided to move the capital back to Moscow in March 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Other countries have moved their capital in modern times - including Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Brazil and Nigeria. Malaysia moved administrative buildings to the purpose-built city of Putrajaya although Kuala Lumpur remains the capital.

But one Moscow expert who opposes the plan and declined to give his name said the battle for construction contracts would be sure to lead to corruption and the new federal city would not be a pleasant place to live or work.

"There are other countries where it's been tried and failed because people hate to live in these sterile places. If it does happen it will end up being all about corruption," he said.

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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