Putin courts Russia drivers with epic road check

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 01, 2011 5:23 AM
Putin courts Russia drivers with epic road check

By Gleb Bryanski

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sought to court millions of Russian drivers this week by sending supporters on an epic car journey across eight time zones to check the state of Russia's notoriously poor roads ahead of the elections.

Opinion polls show more than half of voters are unhappy with the dire state of Russia's roads, an issue that could become a theme in the December parliamentary election and a presidential election in March.

Putin told officials that members of his All-Russian People's Front, a movement he created to boost the ratings of his ruling United Russia party, would inspect the roads on a car journey of more then 7,350 km (4,500 miles) from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

"They will see with their own eyes how the roads are being built and what they look like," Putin, who is widely expected to run in the March election, told government officials, construction workers and activists during a video conference.

"We are here today to speak about an eternal problem, one of Russia's eternal problems -- the roads," he said, hinting at a popular proverb which says that Russia has two eternal problems: fools and roads.

Car ownership has doubled to 40 million over the past decade as high oil prices fueled the longest Russian boom in a generation, though many roads remain dirt tracks and even major highways are littered with potholes the size of graves.

Putin's government says Russia needs to spend $285 billion over the next decade to double the rate of road building and cope with soaring car ownership which is forecast to reach 60 million by 2020.

Foreign and local investors are eyeing Russia's ambitious plans to upgrade aging Soviet infrastructure, including everything from roads and airports to hospitals and schools.

Putin, 58, has still not said whether he or his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, will run in the March election.

But the former KGB spy has been sharpening his image among voters with a string of stunts, baring his muscular torso for a well publicized medical checkup and revving up a three-wheeled Harley Davidson at the head of a bikers motorcade.

In one stunt last year, Putin drove 2,165 km in a yellow Lada along a newly paved road which for the first time linked the European part of Russia with the Far East.

But Putin was stunned when told by an activist that some of the road covering had all ready disintegrated, a frequent problem for hastily constructed roads which have to endure the strains of the bitter Russian winter.

"For me it is a surprise. I was there last year and everything was paved. Are there unpaved parts? Or parts of the road are under repairs?" Putin said.

(Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Casciato)