''They want Russia to outdo the West''
Urban development is an important part of Vladimir Putin’s domestic agenda
Given that about 80% of Russia's population live in cities, increased state spendings on urban development and infrastructure may become a good driver of President Putin's approval rating. At the same time, some Russians, who see the initiative as a hugely expensive vanity project, would prefer the government to spend this money on more basic issues.
Urban modernisation is one of the key themes of Vladimir Putin's current term, considers Bloomberg. Last March, the president pledged to double spending on infrastructure upgrades to encourage ''the formation of a mass and active middle class'' who won't abandon their home cities for Russian capitals or foreign countries. The project's success hinged on the ability of local officials to incorporate local opinion, added Putin.
Member of United Russia's Supreme Council Dmitry Orlov considers making comfortable urban environments to be a critical part of the Kremlin strategy. A multibillion-dollar campaign aimed to modernise Russian cities and towns has been promoted by the government since 2011. In the last four years, 2,1 trillion rubles ($31,7 billion) were allocated for Moscow alone. According to Bloomberg, the capital's rapid modernisation even became a source of considerable envy in the country.
Nonetheless, the Kremlin is spending money not only on the capital. Redevelopment money was allocated to upgrade 40 smaller Russian cities with a combined population of 23 million, stretching from Europe to the Far East, including historic towns in Russia's west. Around $1,5 billion has been spent annually to transform railways, streets and squares, and billions are expected to be spent in the future.
Among the beneficiaries of the initiative is Torzhok, a town about 155 miles (250 kilometres) northwest of Moscow with a population of 50,000. Torzhok's new mayor, 37-year-old Aleksandr Menshchikov, earlier worked as the region's vice-governor in charge of infrastructural development and tourism and oversaw the first major regional renovation project. The ''road'' palace of Catherine the Great was renovated using funds from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and reopened last year. Many historic towns including Tatarstan's Chistopol are getting funds as well.
Abbas Gallyamov, a political consultant who has worked for the government, believes that the motivation behind Putin's urban renewal push is the same one it's always been. ''They've travelled all over Europe,'' he says. ''They liked it. Now they want Russia to outdo the West.'' However, he points out that Russians are increasingly worried about more basic quality of life issues, such as pensions and wages.