Vladimir Putin, Russia's stuntman President, donned a white helmet and coveralls Thursday and took to the Siberian skies in a motorized, white hang glider. It was a ruse designed to fool a flock of rare cranes into following him on a practice flight before they're released into the wild.
Today Mr. Putin will be in Vladivostok, Russia's Pacific capital, preparing to introduce the city to 22 visiting leaders attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit. Russia, he will try to convince them, is ready to play a bigger role in Asia, with Vladivostok ready to join Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo as one of the economic hubs of northeast Asia.
The only problem is that Vladivostok sticks out in that crowd like, well, a man in a bird suit trying to fly with Siberian cranes.
At a quick glance – and that's all Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the other APEC leaders will have during the 48-hour summit this weekend – Vladivostok looks ready for prime time. The APEC summit will be hosted on Russkiy Island, an isolated former Soviet military base that has been overhauled into the new campus of the Far East Federal University (which will start its school year as soon as the summit ends and the VIP guests vacate the future dorms and lecture halls).
But while the official delegations will likely be impressed by the modern-looking and heavily guarded summit site, business people milling around the edges of the APEC summit are getting a taste of how far Russia's Far East lags behind the economic powerhouses with which it's trying to fly, and of how doing business in Russia is often done on a wing and a prayer.
Russkiy Island is connected to the rest of Vladivostok by the world's longest cable-stayed bridge, newly finished at a reported cost of $1-billion. The APEC leaders will see the impressive span – painted in the blue, white and red of the Russian flag – from above as they are taken directly from Vladivostok's new airport terminal to Russkiy Island by helicopter.
"Vladivostok will be the epicentre of business and politics" during the APEC summit, Mr. Putin wrote in an article published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal. He went on to lay out his vision of the country's Far East as a link between the markets of Asia to that of the European Union, which also borders on Russia, albeit seven time zones away. "Russia has much to offer. We are already building modern ports in the Russian Far East, modernizing the transportation and shipment infrastructure and improving national customs and administrative procedures."
In the grand vision that Vladivostok bureaucrats were boasting of just a few months ago, delegates not staying on Russkiy Island were supposed to be staying in a pair of five-star Hyatt hotels being built on the chilly coastline of this graceful-in-parts, decrepit-in-others city of 600,000.
But despite five years' notice that the city would play host to APEC in 2012, both hotels remain under construction as the summit begins, still months away from opening. Well-heeled Asian businessmen were forced instead to fight for scarce rooms at the city's handful of existing Soviet-era hotels, two-star establishments such as the Granit, Azimut and Equator. Proprietors are gleefully charging triple their normal rates this week for noisy rooms without air conditioning, some directly above all-night strip clubs.
"I would personally have liked to have finished construction in time for APEC, so we could serve our guests in five-star hotels. … I experienced a lot of pressure from different levels of authority," said Marina Lomakina, general director of Nash Dom Primorye, the local company tasked with building the two Hyatts. She said it was impossible for the firm to meet both the government's demands that they open in time for the summit, and Hyatt's strict standards about how its hotels are built.
"Everybody understands that east of the Ural [Mountains] we don't have any five-star hotels in Russia. If we're going to integrate in the Asia-Pacific region, we should have these kind of properties."
Even on the summit site, worries linger that Vladivostok won't be up to hosting 10,000 guests from around the region. The Interfax news agency reported that uniforms for the 1,500 summit staff arrived from China with unspecified defects, forcing a last-minute tailoring marathon. A trio of new hydrofoils that were supposed to shuttle delegates back and forth to Russkiy Island also have yet to make an appearance.
Hosting APEC, which was supposed to transform Vladivostok and Russia's Far East, has instead become one more subject for disillusioned residents to gripe about and blame faraway Moscow for.
Taxi drivers delight in pointing out that while buildings and bridges along the main route from the airport to the summit site have been given a fresh coat of paint, the sides of the same buildings not facing the airport road remain crumbling and unpainted. Part of the same road collapsed during heavy rains last month, leading to concerns that the city's expensive new infrastructure has not been built to last.
"It's fake, a big show for the foreigners who will drive along the fancy new highways and bridges. But if you turn off those roads, it's a dead end. Just two concrete blocks," said Aleksandr Krinitskiy, a 33-year-old neurologist and political activist. "The life expectancy of all this new construction is approximately one year."
"A friend of mine who had not been to Vladivostok for several years said it looks like the same city, only it has been Photoshopped for the summit," laughed Andrey Gubin, associate professor of international relations at the Far East Federal University.
Despite the criticism, hosting APEC remains a symbolic moment for Vladivostok and for Russia, Prof. Gubin said, a chance to let Asia know that the region is open to business and investment. That task has grown more urgent as Europe's financial troubles have deepened, leaving Asia looking like the far safer bet.
Before APEC "nobody knew about Vladivostok," said Ms. Lomakina of Nash Dom Primorye, the construction firm. "Now everybody knows and everybody is interested."
And the next time they come, she vows, there will even be somewhere nice to stay.