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August 21, 2017

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Putin restarts drive for development in far east

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- Vladimir Lenin's vision of developing Russia's far east would not be out of place in President Vladimir Putin's talking points for the Asia-Pacific summit he is hosting this week in the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

"We will propose that capital from developed countries construct a super-highway between London, Moscow, Vladivostok and Beijing," said the plan, endorsed in 1922 by the Soviet revolutionary leader. "We will tell them that it will open up the untold riches of Siberia."

Ninety years on, the Kremlin has redecorated Russia's window on the east in the hope of improving its image in the eyes of investors from the world's fastest-growing region, and reviving its flagging popularity among hard-pressed locals.

Tsarist Russia completed a 9,300-km (5,800-mile) rail line to Vladivostok in record time, only to fall to the Bolsheviks a year later. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was inspired to develop the city by a visit to San Francisco, another Pacific city on a bay, in 1959.

Now, Russia has pumped US$21 billion into its eastern seaboard to attract investors, tourists and gamblers from Asia, and persuade locals to halt the drift away from a city that, for all the grand designs, remains largely isolated from the rest of the world's largest country.

Putin, 59, underscored a strategic pivot away from crisis-hit Europe to the rising economies of the Pacific Rim by creating a government department for developing Russia's far east after his return to the Kremlin for a third term in May.

But in Vladivostok, a city of 600,000 where the clocks run seven hours ahead of Moscow, the injection of capital has done little to lift the low regard in which many locals hold the leader who has dominated Russia since 2000.

Although the city — whose name translates as "Ruler of the East" — has received a makeover, with a new airport, bridges and highway intersections, residents say inflated contracts were won by insiders and the money would have been better spent on social services and housing.

"I don't associate it with Putin. They took ages to get round to building the bridge," said 28-year-old biologist Yevgeny Skorkin, joining thousands of people on a mass stroll last month over the new bridge across the Zolotoi Rog (Golden Horn) inlet that opens up a vista across the city's port and the ships of Russia's Pacific Fleet in the harbor.

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