Putin touts ex-Soviet bloc as Asia-Europe bridge

by Anna Smolchenko, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 07 2012 10:31 PM | Updated as of Sep 08 2012 06:31 AM

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - President Vladimir Putin on Friday said Russia and a new bloc with ex-Soviet states were well-positioned to become a bridge between Europe and Asia, as he hosted a Pacific regional summit.

The Russian strongman, who is hosting the weekend's APEC summit on Russky Island off the Pacific port of Vladivostok, said his efforts to unite Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus into a post-Soviet economic bloc could also prove beneficial for Asia and Europe.

"Essentially, we'd like to create a powerful centre of regional development," said Putin ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the first major global event he is hosting of his third Kremlin term.

"The future Eurasian Economic Union can become a linking factor between Europe and the Asia Pacific region," Putin said.

"Today it's vital to build bridges between various regions of the world," he said, speaking to business leaders before the two days of talks of the APEC leaders that begin on Saturday.

"It's important to stimulate the global negotiating process and initiate it from below -- from the regions," he added.

Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbours Belarus and Kazakhstan already have a customs union but Putin wants to take the post-Soviet integration further, championing the creation of the Eurasian Union.

With its own executive body and overseeing a single economic space, the Kremlin hopes the bloc would become Russia's answer to the European Union and other groupings.

"We have got new opportunities for joint projects with APEC economies," Putin said, adding that Pacific and Asian nations, particularly New Zealand and Vietnam, were keen to ramp up cooperation with Russia.

"We have received dozens of applications -- I would like to stress the word 'dozens' -- from APEC countries with a view to establishing special trade and economic relations with the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space represented by the three countries."

"If one just looks at the territory of the three countries (Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) one will realise that we have plenty to offer," Putin said.

The Kremlin has pulled out all the stops to host the summit near the formerly closed military port of Vladivostok.

It has spent more than $20 billion to turn a small island once littered with crumbling barracks and rusty ships into a modern summit venue complete with scenic vistas, Filipino porters and a French chef from a Parisian restaurant.

Putin expressed hope that the modern infrastructure including two massive bridges built for the summit would help breathe new life into a region on the border with China and North Korea.

"Residents of Vladivostok have waited for those bridges since 1903," he said.

"As far as Vladivostok is concerned, it was a closed city. It's a naval base. Essentially, little was developed here. A new Russia, a modern Russia behaves and will behave differently."

Russia, the world's largest energy producer, sets much store by its ties with Asia, especially China, the world's largest energy consumer.

Chinese President Hu Jintao -- who extolled Russia's efforts to host the summit as an indication of the country's "great development potential" -- was the first foreign leader to hold bilateral talks with Putin.

While praising the Russian government's focus on Asia, many observers say the country has a long way to go to become a truly competitive regional economy.

"Global projects for the region's technological modernisation are a matter for the very remote future for a very simple reason -- the uncompetitiveness of the Russian investment climate," liberal business daily Vedomosti said in an editorial.