KERCH, Crimea (Reuters) - A crumbling nineteenth century fortress perched on the edge of a cape in Russian-annexed Crimea is drawing locals to gaze at what some are calling Putin’s Bridge: a nascent super structure that will link the peninsula to Russia.
“Russia is coming towards us,” said Sergei Derbenyov, a 22-year-old businessman from the Crimean city of Kerch, peering through binoculars at a cargo ship passing beneath what will be the new bridge’s main arch.
In the distance, Russia’s low-lying Krasnodar region can be discerned with the naked eye, as can clusters of mechanical pile drivers laying the foundations for the bridge on an island in the middle of the Kerch Strait and on a spit on the other side.
On both sides of the busy shipping lane, people hope the bridge will breathe life into economically-deprived economies weary of being treated like places at the end of the line.
Derbenyov, a Putin supporter and owner of a stake in a local restaurant that is struggling with an economic crisis, power blackouts and increased regulation, said he hoped the bridge would revive his fortunes.
“I‘m waiting for the people it will bring,” he said. “People with more purchasing power than people here.”
He will have to wait longer than he thought. The road segment of the bridge is slated to be ready at the end of 2018, but the rail part has been delayed by a year until the end of 2019.
Extending 19 km (11.8 miles) when complete, the bridge, construction of which is opposed by Ukraine, will be the longest in Russia and the longest of its kind in Europe.
Closely associated with President Vladimir Putin, the 212-billion rouble ($3.2 billion) bridge, is designed to integrate Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, into the wider Russian economy to end its relative isolation.
Crimea, home to about 2 million people, is at Ukraine’s most southerly tip. Moscow, which says the territory is rightfully Russian, can supply it only by sea and air, a factor which is crimping the Black Sea peninsula’s economic growth.
A breakdown in relations between Moscow and Kiev over the annexation and Russia’s support for pro-Kremlin separatists fighting Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine means the peninsula suffers daily power blackouts. Its land border with rump Ukraine is blockaded by activists agitating for its return and Ukrainian tourists no longer flock to its beaches.
The upheaval makes it hard to make meaningful economic comparisons, but Crimeans complain of galloping inflation and daily electricity rationing. Crimea also depends heavily on Russia to fulfill basic services, with 75 percent of its budget last year coming from Moscow.
The bridge, likely to be regarded as an important part of Putin’s legacy, has been promoted as a panacea to all that in a slick advert by Russian state television which uses computer graphics set against an upbeat Hollywood-style soundtrack.
“Millions are waiting”, the advert says, likening the bridge to a multi-billion-dollar railway project under Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev which linked Siberia to the Soviet far east.
Putin, on a visit to the bridge’s construction site last month, spoke in grandiose terms of the many failed attempts to erect such a bridge over the Kerch Strait in the past.
Plans drawn up under Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, were derailed by World War One, he said. Nazi Germany built a crossing in 1943, the remains of which Soviet engineers used to erect a temporary crossing under Josef Stalin. That, Putin lamented, had been wrecked by ice flows.
“Our predecessors understood the significance of this bridge ... and tried to complete this project a long time ago,” said Putin. “Let’s hope we can fulfill this historical mission.”
Putin has a little help from his friends to do so.
The contract to build the bridge was handed to Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s childhood judo partner and longtime ally, who controls the lead contractor Stroygazmontazh (SGM).
In Kerch, a hard-scrabble shipbuilding city of 140,000 people where the bridge will start on the Crimean side, posters show Putin smiling down benevolently next to the slogan: “Crimea. Russia. Forever.”
Other posters show a map of Crimea colored in the white, blue and red colors of the Russian flag with the legend “We are building bridges.”
Crimea was transferred to Ukraine from Russia, both then part of the USSR, by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.
Russia, anxious to restore what it saw as historical justice, annexed it in March 2014 after a referendum on the peninsula that supported such a move. The vote followed the seizure of Crimea by armed groups, including Russian servicemen, after the overthrow of a Ukrainian president backed by Moscow.
Not everyone is as excited about the bridge as the young restaurateur Derbenyov.
“Who cares about the bridge?,” one elderly lady feeding cats in a local park said when asked what she felt about it.
“They can’t even repair the road behind you,” said the woman, who declined to give her name for fear of retribution. “Let them start with that.”
Other locals were skeptical that the Crimean authorities would do their part on time, pointing to an ordinary road bridge in Kerch which has stood unfinished for years.
A middle-aged man who gave his name only as Sergei and was traveling by ferry to Russia after a holiday in Crimea said he was pleased the bridge was being built. But he was struck by how freely the Kremlin spent on such projects at a time of economic crisis, including Western sanctions on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis.
“They don’t care how much the bridge costs, but when it comes to people living in poverty it’s a different matter,” he said. “What about all the pensioners scraping by on a pittance?”
‘PRESIDENT FROM GOD’
On the other side of the strait, in the Russian town of Taman, a rural backwater of around 10,000 people, locals were more upbeat.
The main hero in a nineteenth century novel by Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov described Taman as “the most miserable dump of all Russia’s seaside towns,” a moniker it has been struggling to shake off ever since.
But Elena Leontieva, a 53-year-old administrator in a local hotel, Fort Apatur, said Putin’s bridge was already changing Taman’s fortunes and her own.
A steady flow of construction workers meant the hotel was doing a roaring trade and she and other employees had received a 50 percent pay rise as a result.
“We are grateful to Putin. We adore him. He is the president from God,” Leontieva said. “Imagine how many more tourists will pass through here when the bridge opens.”
In the hotel bar the previous night, a local construction company had also been positive about the bridge.
“We will build the bridge well and beautifully,” a construction executive, clutching a shot of vodka in his outstretched hand for a toast, had told his workers. “The whole of Russia is watching us.”
Just outside town, trucks barrel along a narrow wind-lashed spit of sand during the day transporting sand, gravel and huge foundation piles to an island in the middle of the strait. At least 40 such trucks passed a Reuters reporter within 10 minutes on a recent visit.
In the local administration building, Ivan Bedelev, the equivalent of Taman’s mayor, said the influx of bridge workers meant more than twice as much money from Moscow for the local area, more jobs, and more revenue for the service sector.
The bridge would spur development of the local port and economic development on both sides of the strait, he predicted.
Some Ukrainian politicians have questioned whether the bridge will ever be finished because of the strait’s extreme weather conditions -- it is often battered by fierce storms and parts of it regularly freezes over in winter -- and because of allegedly tectonic activity in the area.
Bedelev was dismissive.
“Let them talk, we’ll build it,” he said. “There’s an old Russian saying: ‘The dog barks but the caravan keeps on going’.”
Editing by Timothy Heritage