Shaking up Russia’s Far East

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LONDON — If you Google “Vladimir Nikolaev,” mayor of Vladivostok, 2007,” you will come up with an interesting story about how he was recently arrested. You will also find stories about how he resisted arrest, but finished up in handcuffs.

Nikolaev has a long history of allegations of criminal activities. He was in prison for a while, where he was allegedly known as Winnie the Pooh. It is also alleged that he used flame-throwers to support his arguments.

He thought he was safe. He was released from prison under an amnesty at the end of the 1990s. He had acquired substantial wealth in previous years (use Google to check how). He used this wealth, allegedly, of course, to buy himself a strong position in the Vladivostok branch of the United Russia Party (URP).

The URP controls Russia’s Parliament and also has close connections to President Vladimir Putin.

In 2004 Nikolaev became Vladivostok’s mayor. Of the four other candidates, one ended up in the hospital after a bomb went off close to him and two others decided they had better things to do. The other one was not very popular so he was allowed to remain in the election.

There have been many stories about how Putin and his friends have removed democracy from Russia by allowing alleged criminals to take over as governors and mayors. When the Kremlin wants political change in a town or state it can turn the law against officers and have them removed.

This is probably what has happened in Vladivostok. Why? The mayor is not the only “democratically” elected leader of Vladivostok who has been removed; five others, including the deputy mayor, have suddenly been confronted with legal problems and arrested. You may take the view that many politicians in Russia are corrupt; I have even heard Russians argue that politics is now the main career of criminals.

Nikolaev flew to Moscow after the threats of court action became public; he asked his supporters in Moscow to get the case closed down. They refused. A few days later he finished up in chains.

So why have he and his colleagues been confronted with the law?

The prospective financial return to holders of political posts in Vladivostok, or those people engaged in criminal activities there has recently been raised substantially by Putin. Maybe the big boys want to move in to take advantage of this, which means that they have to get rid of current post holders like Nikolaev and his colleagues.

Why is Putin willing to accept what is going on in Vladivostok? Well, he has big dreams for the future of Russia as an Asian power. He hopes to cultivate his relationships with Asian governments with sales of Russian oil and gas.

He also has put a lot of effort into finding ways to secure Russia’s borders with China. At the same time he has been offering substantial benefits to Slav immigrants from former Soviet countries. He wants them to move in and replace ethnic Russians who are moving out of the Far East as fast as they can, reportedly more than 250 every day.

Putin’s plans to get ethnic Russians to stay in or move to Russia’s Far East have failed. His dream for Russia’s development as an Asian political power is frustrated by this (and by Chinese immigrants). So he has come up with a new idea, which is almost certainly the reason for the arrest of the five politicians in Vladivostok.

Putin said that he wants Asia Pacific Cooperation (APEC) countries to accept an invitation to hold their 2012 annual meeting on Russky Island, just off the coast of Vladivostok.

Russky Island is a popular place where poorer people in Vladivostok like to spend their summer holidays, mainly in tents. It has no modern infrastructure. To bring it up to the standards capable of maintaining Russia’s desired reputation will require a lot of investment. Putin said that he will approve the expenditure of 100 billion rubles to develop the island.

The political significance of the development of Russky Island as an international center was indicated by the appointment of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov as head of the new project to develop the island. He talked about allocating 36.4 billion rubles for the general development needed to get this project off the ground.

The government says that in preparation for the APEC meeting 35 billion rubles will be spent to build two bridges to the island, 10 billion to improve Vladivostok’s airport up to international standards and 12 billion to improve the port.

Moscow has estimated that the preparations for the APEC meeting in 2012, and the activities that that project will continue to support means that income in the Vladivostok area will go up 12 times by 2020 compared to income now.

There are two possible reasons why political leaders are being, allegedly, removed by applying the law. One reason for the removal of the mayor of Vladivostok and his friends could be that leaders in Moscow feel that they do not have the skills required to manage a major project. So far their focus has been on relatively small scale, and allegedly often criminal, activities. The development of Russky Island as a new international center that will strengthen Russia’s status in Asia is a task of an altogether different order.

A second reason could be that high profile criminals in Russia have decided that they can get a massive rate of return from becoming involved in the development of Russky Island and the supporting infrastructure in Vladivostok. If so, what we may be seeing is how their friends in the Kremlin are helping them take power there. Without such Kremlin support nothing would be happening.

No one listened to Nikolaev when he went to Moscow to talk to the people who had supported him in the past and got him out of jail. Maybe he has to go back to jail so that Moscow’s new friends can get the benefits from the developments needed for the APEC meeting.