MOSCOW Moscow's mayor says he can solve the Russian capital's problems and make it a global financial centre, despite widespread concerns over corruption, red tape and growing traffic congestion.
Seven months after his appointment by President Dmitry Medvedev, Sergei Sobyanin said improving public transport and reducing corruption were among his priorities as he tries to make the city a more attractive place to live and invest in.
It is a tough task. Even Sobyanin, who is also an ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, acknowledges that investing in Russia involves risks but says the potential gains are high.
"Moscow's biggest plus is that it is the capital of Russia," he told Reuters in an interview on the eve of an international investment forum in Russia's second city, St Petersburg. "The biggest financial flows are here, the headquarters of the biggest financial companies are here."
"If you are talking about the possible income from investments in Russia, in Moscow, then I think the return on the investment is significant. There are, of course, more significant risks of making losses but that's a question of management and professional decision making."
Moscow attracts more investment than other Russian cities and accounts for about a quarter of the country's $1.5 trillion economy.
The gleaming office blocks and business centres that have sprung up since the Soviet Union fell in 1991 bear witness to this and make Moscow a showcase of what Russia has achieved in the past two decades on the back of higher global oil prices.
But many foreigners are put off coming to Moscow by the high cost of living, including the sky-high price of accommodation in the city centre, long winters, traffic, pollution, and concerns over the rule of law and safety following several bomb attacks.
Even so, Medvedev and Putin want the city of 10.5 million people to become one of the world's main centres of global finance by 2020.
"We must create conditions to make him (the investor) comfortable," said Sobyanin, who will be 53 on June 21 and was appointed without a public vote last October.
"The mayor's main task is to create comfortable living conditions for Muscovites, and of course for foreigners. If we make Moscow comfortable for our own people then it will resolve the problems for creating an international financial centre."
DEALING WITH PROBLEMS
Sobyanin was brought in as a trusted ally when his predecessor, Yuri Luzhkov, was sacked by Medvedev in a public feud after 18 years in office.
Top of his priorities, he said, was improving public transport, rather than developing the road network, to encourage commuters to use their cars less and reduce the traffic jams that bring the city almost to a halt in the rush hour.
He is also fighting bureaucracy and corruption, cited by investors as reasons to stay out of Russia.
"Transparent procedures for starting up business, for benefiting from state services and the openness of the authorities are key to reducing corruption," he said, adding that efforts to reduce bureaucracy and corruption were discussed frequently and systematically by the city authorities.
Other investors say they are worried by weak property rights, and the rule of law in general.
Sobyanin, who was a deputy prime minister and a former Kremlin chief of staff under both Putin and Medvedev, also wants to ensure Moscow is considered safe before Russia hosts the World Cup soccer finals in 2018.
Russia faces an Islamist insurgency on its southern rim and a suicide bombing killed 37 people at Moscow's Domodedovo airport in January, less than a year after suicide attacks on the Moscow subway killed 40 people in March 2010.
"Moscow is probably not alone in having such tragedies," Sobyanin said. He added, without giving details: "We are working on a full programme called 'Safe City' in the case of an act of terrorism."
Sobyanin said he planned to open special schools in Moscow to help immigrant children learn Russian, hoping this would help break down divisions in the multi-ethnic city.
He made clear he would be more tolerant than his predecessor of opposition rallies if they did not block streets or disrupt public order but indicated he would follow a similar line to Luzhkov in banning gay parades, despite international criticism. (editing by Elizabeth Piper)