KALININGRAD, RussiaÂ – The new maternity hospital in Russia’s westernmost region has state-of-the-art German equipment in its operating theatres and the staff know who to thank: Dmitry Medvedev.
The man almost certain to be elected as Russia’s new president next weekend has for the past two years been overseeing four “national projects” to reform healthcare, education, housing and agriculture.
The projects are the biggest political undertaking the technocrat Medvedev has had to handle to date, and his management of them gives an insight into how he will perform when he takes over from his mentor Vladimir Putin as president.
After spending $10 billion on the projects last year alone, the Kremlin’s public relations machine is also using them as a showcase to convince any wavering voters to back Medvedev.
“Medvedev was not scared … and got down to work (on the national projects) without batting an eyelid,” Putin, who has endorsed Medvedev to replace him, said earlier this month.
Medvedev inspected the new facilities at Kaliningrad’s maternity hospital last month on a campaign trip and the visit was broadcast into homes across Russia.
“So here we are, walking along Dmitry Medvedev’s path,” regional health chief Yelena Klyuikova said with pride as she later showed visiting journalists around the hospital.
The still empty corridors smell of fresh paint. The hospital has a new X-ray machine so advanced it communicates automatically with a maintenance computer in Germany.
With prices for oil, Russia’s main export, near record levels, Russia’s budget is now overflowing with cash. The Government says spending on the national projects will rise further to $12 billion in 2008.
The spending is part of a broader Kremlin theme: under Putin the focus was on restoring central control following the chaos of the 1990s; the emphasis is now on providing ordinary people with better public services and quality of life.
So has Medvedev made a success of the national projects? Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and now a Kremlin critic, has called the projects a “propaganda screen.”
“In essence, these ‘national projects’ are a substitution for systemic reforms with inconsistent, one-off and measly handouts,” Nemtsov and ex-deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov wrote in a study of Putin’s legacy.
Kaliningrad, which was annexed from Germany at the end of World War Two, is precisely the sort of place the national projects set out to help.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kaliningrad became a Russian outpost separated from the rest of the country by Poland and newly independent Lithuania.
The economy suffered, public services deteriorated and — as elsewhere in the country — conditions such as alcoholism and tuberculosis combined to shrink the population.
Things are improving. Officials say the average man in Kaliningrad lives to the age of 58.2 years, not much compared with the average of 70.4 in neighboring Poland, but still better than the life expectancy three years ago of 55.
Infant mortality in Kaliningrad has fallen by more than 30 percent over the last two years, while deaths of mothers during childbirth fell by 14 percent, health chief Klyuikova said.
Once woefully underpaid, Kaliningrad’s district doctors and nurses now earn the same or better than the region’s average monthly salary of $600.
But after more than a decade of neglect, the pace of change is too slow for some people.
“It’s all worse than two years ago,” said pensioner Svetlana Sukhareva, waiting in a long queue at a clinic in the town of Pribrezhnoye, known as Waldburg under German rule.
“I have to wait here for hours,” Sukhareva, who said she suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis, told Reuters. “What should I do here? Commit suicide?”