PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, Russia -- Back in 2012, Valery Karpenko had good news for the more than 300,000 residents of Kamchatka, one of Russia's remotest regions, famous for its pristine nature, active volcanoes, and poor government services, including health care.
With local TV cameras filming, Karpenko, then deputy chairman of the regional government, could hardly contain his enthusiasm as he spoke of the new medical center that would soon rise up in Petropavlovsk, capital of the region in Russia's Far East. It would replace a crumbling hodgepodge of structures built in the Soviet era: the sole full-service, state-run hospital on the peninsula jutting down between the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Okhotsk.
"There has been no facility like it in the entire Far East, let alone Kamchatka," Karpenko boasted, adding the new complex would be equipped with cutting-edge "German technology," staffed by top-notch talent -- doctors, nurses, and other personnel, some trained abroad. Elderly women "walking the corridors with buckets handing out food," would be replaced by a slick catering unit, Karpenko vowed.
Fast forward nearly nine years to the end of 2020, and the people of Kamchatka are still waiting for the promised medical center. At the site, steel girders welded together to form building frames rise up from cement amid overgrown, brown fields fenced in only on one side. Karpenko is long gone from his post, his unfulfilled promises perhaps the least of his worries: He now faces a possible 12-year prison term on bribery charges linked to the project.
Allegations that local officials have long stuffed their own pockets with money allocated for the hospital have circulated for years among locals and contractors on the project, many of whom were never paid for their work. Given the scale of the scandal, the Kremlin has from time to time intervened, vowing to jump-start construction. In August, President Vladimir Putin dispatched Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to Kamchatka, more than 6,000 kilometers east of Moscow, on the latest such mission.
"I'm shocked by the inaction and the negligence over the years regarding construction of the hospital," Mishustin said during a visit to the dilapidated Kamchatka Regional Hospital as he met doctors to discuss the postponement-plagued project, vowing Kremlin pressure to get things moving.
'Doctors Are Expendable Here'
Skeptics say even a new hospital will only be a band aid on the deeper problems that ail health care in Kamchatka.
Andrei Kubanov, a surgeon who worked at the regional hospital, said not only are doctors and nurses less than eager to move to faraway Kamchatka, but fear the climate in the health-care profession, where any criticism can result in termination. Kubanov himself was dismissed earlier this year for allegedly taking too much time to recuperate from an illness. He claims it had all to do with his outspokenness about alleged corruption at the hospital.
Kubanov, who a court found had been dismissed unjustly, said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed all that's wrong with health care in the region.
"In the ambulatory unit alone, 110 [staff members] were officially listed as ill [with coronavirus], but the whole department has only 300 people and that includes the cleaners. Who went out on calls?" Kubanov told the Siberian Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service recently. "Then five doctors in the region died from the coronavirus. That is a huge number for Kamchatka. We had an incident when the urologist was left on duty with COVID patients. He was there one, two days and almost died of dehydration. I myself brought him water and food."
"He said: 'What can I do? They'd fire me if I didn't.' They treat doctors like they're expendable here," added Kubanov, who now heads a private medical clinic in Kamchatka.
Where Did The Money Go?
In April, Putin accepted the resignation of Kamchatka Governor Vladimir Ilyukhin and appointed Vladimir Solodov as acting governor. Solodov, of the ruling United Russia party, then won an election in September to remove the "acting" from his title.
Ilyukhin was one of three regional leaders to resign at the time amid calls by Putin for the country's far-flung areas to do more to curb the spread of coronavirus. Some analysts say Putin, who has declined to institute nationwide lockdown measures, exploited the coronavirus crisis to rid himself of leaders he was tired of.
In early August, Solodov complained to Putin about the shortage of doctors and low hospital-bed capacity in the region. He also said Kamchatka would need 8.4 billion rubles ($115 million) to complete construction of the hospital complex in Petropavlovsk.
Later that month, Mishustin visited Kamchatka where he had no answer as to how or where past funding for the hospital had vanished. "The government went over in detail, in fact, the history on the allocation of funds, the planning process...after 13 years of promises and money put into the construction of new infrastructure, for some reason it just disappeared," Mishustin said in Kamchatka on August 14.
Aleksandr, who said he worked for a company involved in construction at the site, said the company didn't get paid for much of the work it did. "We managed the site in 2011 and 2012 -- it was preparatory work. We built the entire drainage system under the current structure, prepared building platforms.... Our contract was for 200 million rubles, and we received an advance," recounted Aleksandr, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"After that, however, I had to sue to get the rest for the work. And this was what happened to almost all subcontractors. Two firms even went bankrupt," he told the Siberian Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service.
How alleged graft has crippled the project may be best illustrated by the case of Karpenko, who resigned from his post in December 2018 and faced bribery charges two months later.
He and his accomplices were accused of conniving with a businessman to sell a building to the city for 46 million rubles ($625,000) -- double its assessed market value. Money used in the purchase allegedly came from funds allocated for hospital construction. Karpenko, who still awaits trial, faces 12 years in prison if found guilty.
'They Just Changed The Billboard'
Few debate the need for a new hospital in Kamchatka. The old complex comprises 11 buildings erected between the 1950s and 1970s. In 2003, the complex was deemed an earthquake risk. Plus, the fact buildings are scattered pell-mell makes the logistics of care complicated.
The Kamchatka Health Ministry now says the new regional hospital will be completed by 2023 and it has established a new directorate to oversee the project. But there is no concrete construction timetable and the ministry did not respond to queries from RFE/RL for details on how the project will proceed.
Given the past problems, few locals in Petropavlovsk appear hopeful they will see any new facility soon.
"What hospital? There is no health care on Kamchatka," Yelena Golovachenko said. "And if there is any, then it's not much. And a new hospital won't solve anything. And when will it be completed? That's the question. The girders have been standing for many years, money for its construction is handed out every year. It's not hard to guess where all those millions have gone -- everyone steals."
"People here have two choices: they can go to the mainland for treatment, or travel somewhere else," she said.
Others complain about the lack and level of current services.
"We need specialists, but they don't come here, and the equipment is outdated. If you go to the employment bureau, most of the vacancies are for doctors. And those specialists that are here end up working at private clinics. Getting an appointment to see an in-demand specialist can take months," said another local resident, Anna Bryukhanova.
Meanwhile, at the construction site, nothing seems to have changed except for a new billboard with photos of what should one day stand there.
"I drove by recently, just out of curiosity after the election of a new governor -- nothing has changed," Kubanov said. "I honestly wasn't surprised. They changed the billboard about the project as if they only started construction in 2020, although plans were made back in 2011."