Cabinet Shuffle Brakes High-Speed Railway

By Anna Badkhen

Plans to start construction in less than two months on a $316 million high-speed railway between St. Petersburg and Moscow have suddenly been jeopardized by Russia's cabinet shuffle, and analysts say the project is most likely dead.

Representatives of RAO VSM, the company in charge of the project, insist that construction of the railway will start in less than two months, despite the fall from the government of former first vice prime minister Alexei Bolshakov.

Bolshakov, a native St. Petersburger, himself headed RAO VSM until he was invited to join the government last summer as the second-ranking minister after Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. With Bolshakov's appointment, the St. Petersburg-Moscow high-speed rail gathered momentum - despite opposition from a spectrum of forces, ranging from environmentalists to the governor of the central Russian Tver Oblast to the Culture Ministry.

Now the project's fate looks grim.

"[The idea to build the high-speed railway] will collapse any time now that [Bolshakov] has been deprived of his office. I bet you my arm, my leg, or even a more explicit part of my body," said Andrei Piontkowsky, director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies.

Although he abstained from betting any body parts, Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, agreed that the construction of the railway was now unlikely.

"At present, in the time of a financial crisis [in Russia], I am positive the construction of such a large-scale object will be either delayed [or], even more likely, canceled," Petrov said in a telephone interview Thursday.

However, officials of RAO VSM said the project was still on schedule.

"We don't anticipate any changes related [to Bolshakov's firing]," said Igor Kiselyov, one of the directors of RAO VSM, in a telephone interview Wednesday. "Everything is going as planned."

Should the high-speed railway be constructed, it would supplement the existing railway, which was built in the mid-19th century under the reign of Nikolai I.

Riding the high-speed rail, it would be possible to cover the distance of almost 900 kilometers between St. Petersburg and Moscow in two hours and 27 minutes, RAO VSM says. Regular trains average about six hours.

Construction of the high-speed railway was planned to start in May in St. Petersburg and to be completed by the year 2000, at an approximate cost of $316 million. According to Kiselyov, construction is to involve the Russian military-industrial complex. Stock in the railway was auctioned in 1991, and today the government holds 91 percent of the shares.

That means that even without Bolshakov, there are interests that will strive to see the railway built. The question is whether those interests, minus their leader, will still be able to convince the government to allocate the money.

"With the stock already sold and the military industry involved, of course they will fight for [their project]," Piontkowsky said. "It is all about their money."

The idea of a high-speed railway has many opponents.

Part of the plan, for example, calls for building a 5.2-hectare train station complex next to the Moskovsky Train Station in historic downtown St. Petersburg. That would require destroying several tsarist-era buildings on Ligovsky Prospect - a fact that has alarmed the Culture Ministry, which has been trying to halt the project since last November.

According to the local daily newspaper Smena, RAO VSM's only response to queries from the Culture Ministry about the train station complex was a letter stating that "all the work is being done 'in accordance with the law.'"

Environmentalists have also opposed the railway, on grounds that building it parallel to the existing 19th-century railway lines would involve cutting down hectares and hectares of valuable forest in the Valdaisky National Park. Both the State Duma's Ecology Committee and the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly's Ecological Commission have opposed the high-speed railway, and Tamara Zlotnikova, chairwoman of the Duma committee, has filed suit with the Russian Supreme Court to stop it. The Supreme Court this week refused to hear the case.

A newcomer to the ranks of the railway's critics is Vladimir Platov, governor of the Tver Oblast, which is located between St. Petersburg and Moscow. The high-speed railway, just like the existing railroads, would pass through Tver Oblast.

Two weeks ago Platov went public with criticism of the plan, saying he doubted it would earn federal funding and would thus probably be built in the end on foreign investment. The original plans called for letting regions like Tver Oblast own stretches of the railway on their territories, but Platov said he doubted that would still happen if foreign investors gained influence.

Kiselyov of RAO VSM said he was unconcerned by the criticism of either Platov or Zlotnikova or the Culture Ministry.

"[The construction of the] railway will reach Tver in about three years. That is when we'll discuss it with [Tver's government]," Kiselyov said. "Of course, there are political forces which are interested in the failure of the project, but it is a normal situation and one should not take [our opponents] seriously."

© 1997 St Petersburg Press

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