By Denis Dyomkin
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev unveiled a $1 billion bridge to a remote Far East island on Monday, seen as a symbol of the Kremlin's eagerness to retain influence in the region at any cost to counter the rise of China.
"We must fully realize the Far East's potential, integrate this territory into the national economic space," Medvedev said in a meeting with regional officials, after inaugurating the bridge.
The 3.1-km (1.9-mile) bridge links the port city of Vladivostok to Russky Island, a barren former military base where Russia is to host the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on September 1.
The bridge, conceived in the golden days of Russia's oil bonanza before the 2008 economic crisis, has come in for harsh criticism from anti-Kremlin opposition who dubbed it "a bridge to nowhere" and said the cost was too high.
"I am sure that this bridge will serve many people - those who live in Vladivostok, on Russky Island, those who will come to visit, tourists from our country, as well as from other places," a defiant Medvedev said at the launch ceremony.
Medvedev, accompanied by other government officials, drove across the bridge in a van but the public will not be able to use it before August. Until then the bridge will be open only to trucks heading to construction sites on the island.
Russky Island is infamous for an incident in which four soldiers starved to death at its military base in 1993 because it was so isolated it could not be properly supplied.
The island now will be the site of an international university which Russia hopes will attract students from Asian countries, and luxury real estate for the super-rich.
INTEGRATE THIS TERRITORY
Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin, who will host the Asian summit, have stressed that development of the Far East, an area which occupies one third of Russia's territory but is home to only four percent of the population, is a priority.
Russia wants to diversify its commodity trade away from stagnating Europe to booming Asia. The energy exporter has built an oil terminal and a pipeline in the Far East and is negotiating a long-term gas supply contract with energy-hungry China.
Russia also wants to make money on transit trade flows between Asia and Europe, which currently bypass it due to poor infrastructure, corruption and bureaucracy, and is pinning hopes on the summit for an economic turnaround in the Far East.
Delays and accidents dogged preparations for the summit which cost the Russian budget $20 billion. In December 2011 the bridge caught fire and two weeks ago heavy rain partly destroyed a road leading to it.
"The construction workers fixed it and are saying that everything is normal. Let's hope it will be but I think there are lessons to be learned from this incident," Medvedev said.
(Writing by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Michael Roddy)