By Paul Goble
Because of the paucity of roads and railways, Russia has traditionally relied on river communications to tie the country together and to move goods and people about. Russia has approximately 100,000 kilometers of navigable rivers, but it now has only a quarter of the riverboats it had at the end of Soviet times, 9,000 down from 35,400.
The situation is so desire that it prompted one caller to ask Vladimir Putin about it in his recent “Direct Line” program and that, according to Anna Astakhova of “Sovershenno Sekretno,” will be the subject of a Russian State Council session sometime this summer (sovsekretno.ru/articles/id/5434/).
“Of the 15 river basins” in Russia, she says, “only four (the Amur, the Yenisey, the Volga and the Moscow)” saw traffic increase in 2015. Most saw radical declines in both raw materials and passengers, with the tonnage carried by the entire system falling to 115 million tons, down from 600 million tons annually in the 1980s and 400 million yearly at the end of the 1990s.
Some people in the government and the expert community are even beginning to ask whether Russia in fact needs river transport, a question, Astakhova points out, that “would never have entered the head of anyone in Soviet times.”
Russia’s river transport system has faced an enormous set of challenges since 1991, she details. Its former transportation partners are now its competitors, banks are unwilling to finance projects with long amortization times, rivers aren’t being dredged, and its stock is aging and not being replaced, with some of it simply being sold off for the value of the metal it contained.
Unless there is a new state program for the river fleet, she suggests, it may simply die out in the coming decades further restricting Russia’s economic growth and limiting the ability of people, goods and raw materials to move around. That has security implications, and people in the river transport sector hope that the powers that be will pay attention.