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Time Could Be Up For Russian Time Zones

It's the biggest country in the world, a sprawling landmass stretching 11 time zones from Europe to the Far East.

Russia's vastness has been cited for centuries as a reason for its ungovernability, and there's been no shortage of schemes to instill order.

Now experts in Russia are studying a proposal to reduce the number of time zones after a speech by President Dmitry Medvedev this week.

It's part of a series of measures Medvedev said could transform the vast country's backward economy into a model of technological advancement.

Critics, however, have dismissed the plan, saying it betrays a lack of ideas about how to tackle Russia's real problems.

'Illustration Of Greatness'

In an annual state-of-the-nation speech in the Kremlin's ornately gilded grand palace, Medvedev called for a major modernization program that would transform Russia's "primitive" economy, something Medvedev said is crucial for the country's very survival.

Medvedev's proposals included a call to reduce Russia's time zones, which he began by praising as an "illustration of Russia's greatness."

"But did we ever seriously think about whether so much division really helps the effective governance of our country?" Medvedev said.

Medvedev mentioned no specifics, calling on experts to study his proposal.

That's something scholar Yury Avdeyev says should have been done a long time ago.
If you were to conflate the time zones totally, then obviously you would have some people who would be spending much of their day in darkness

An ecology scholar at Russia's University of the Far East, located in the Pacific Sea port of Vladivostok, seven time zones from Moscow, Avdeyev says: "Every time I talk to Muscovites, they have no idea what a seven-hour time difference is. They call at 10 or 12 at night and ask, 'What, you're not still working?' Because Muscovites essentially see Moscow as the entire country."

Experts say there's no reason Russia can’t simply reduce the number of its time zones so that people in Moscow wouldn't show up for work at 9 o'clock, after people in Vladivostok have already left for home at 4 o'clock.

Jonathan Betts of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, says doing so might stimulate everyday business.

"It can complicate matters considerably if certain parts of your nation are running at different times. It narrows down the window of opportunity for communications at given times of the day," Betts says.

Betts says the main practical problem for changing time zones would be informing Russians and people around the world.

China's Single Time Zone

There are precedents for Russia, but changing time zones in the past has often been seen as less about practical matters than politics.

After China's communist revolution, Mao Zedong reduced the country's five time zones to one -- Beijing's -- to boost central power. Many residents of western China now arrive at work just as the sun is rising.

Betts says Russia's huge size limits its options.

"Obviously if they were going to push for one time scale for the whole nation, that would make it very difficult at the extremes, depending on where the mean was adopted," Betts says.

"Because if you were to conflate the time zones totally, then obviously you would have some people who would be spending much of their day in darkness, and that would be deeply unpopular for obvious reasons."

Experts are already debating reducing Russia's time zones to three or four. But Avdeyev, the scholar who supports the measure, nevertheless believes it's not something Medvedev should be pursuing. He says the president has far more serious problems to tackle.

"[The proposal] shows there's a crisis of ideas. The scheme [to reduce the number of] time zones is just a passing thing. Far more serious is the question of creating a policy for development in the Far East, and how we fit into the Pacific region," Avdeyev says.

Yury Korgunyuk of Moscow's Indem think tank agrees. He says Medvedev made his proposal only because it would be easy.

"After laying out a whole series of unfulfillable proposals for massive projects [in his address], he offered something that could actually be carried out," Korgunyuk says.

Still, he says, it's unlikely Medvedev's proposal will move beyond its use as a rhetorical tool.

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