Prague, 28 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin convened a news conference on 27 July to acknowledge what Russians have known since Gogol’s times.
Russia’s roads -- with a few notable exceptions -- are abysmal.
Levitin put the reason down to a combination of corruption and inefficient spending.
"There have been cases when the heads of road-building projects deliberately overlooked the fact that deadlines are not met or that the necessary repairs are not completed or that safety standards are not met or that lane markings are not painted," Levitin says. "We spend around 1 billion rubles a year [$35 million] alone on lane markings. But the quality reflects the fact that we use whatever's cheapest and so, after two months, the lane markings have been smeared all over the road or they are simply no longer visible."
Gogol, who made his name as a writer describing the absurdities of Russian life, would have appreciated Levitin’s next remark.
Most European countries repair their roads in the summer. But the transport minister said in Russia -- home to the continent’s fiercest winters -- the roads are fixed in December.
"Good roads are a consequence of a normal democracy and the respect for human rights, and of the government's responsibility towards society."
"If we make a decision to supply extra funds for road works, then those funds must be distributed in the first quarter of the year. But what happens is that we receive the funds in the third quarter. So we get the money in October and if we don't use it, then we are told we're not doing a good job. So this is what we're saying: today in Russia we should be working on roads from March until November -- depending on the region. But the rest of the time, money should not be touched," Levitin says.
But the point of Levitin’s news conference was not only to analyze the reasons for Russia’s poor roads. It was, above all, to announce plans for improvements.
Levitin announced a major increase in the budget for road repairs across the country. The current 23 billion ruble annual budget for road repair and upkeep is due to double to 46 billion rubles next year.
More importantly, oversight over how those funds are spent will be assigned to independent monitoring agencies instead of to the contractors responsible for the work -- as is currently the case. Road builders, he said, will be obliged to give a five-year guarantee on their work.
For the future, the state also plans to build a network of new toll roads to ease congestion and ensure revenue for their upkeep. Moscow region governor Boris Gromov tells RFE/RL plans are under way for a toll road linking Moscow to St. Petersburg.
"The first stage will run from the Moscow Ring Road to Sheremetyevo-1 and Sheremetyevo-2 [airports] and then this toll road will continue to St. Petersburg," Gromov says.
Viktor Pokhmelkin, head of the Union of Automobile Drivers of Russia, is skeptical that much will change, despite all the announcements.
He tells RFE/RL that Russia’s potholed roads reflect the state sector’s corruption, the absence of control mechanisms and politicians’ lack of accountability to their voters.
Pokhmelkin says corruption is a hallmark of the construction business in many countries. But unlike Russia, politicians in Europe know they must answer to their constituents, who will vote them out of office if public services -- like roads -- deteriorate to unacceptable levels.
Fix Russia’s democracy deficit, says Pokhmelkin, and the roads will take care of themselves.
"Good roads are a consequence of a normal democracy and the respect for human rights, and of the government's responsibility towards society. Those are basic preconditions. As soon as we start to fulfill these criteria and start moving forward on these points, good roads will appear," Pokhmelkin says. "It simply never happens that a corrupt, thieving government suddenly starts to deliver good roads, wonderful housing, and quality cars. That just doesn't happen."
Russia’s bad roads aren’t just a matter of inconvenience. They also contribute to the country’s high accident and fatality rate. On average, 95 people die on Russia’s roads every day. That adds up to some 35,000 deaths per year -- 10 times higher than in Great Britain, which has just as many drivers, but far better roads.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)