Thomas White Global Investing
Russia
Russia Stamp
December 11, 2009
A Postcard from Europe
Russia: Timing It Just Right

Moscow at night

As the world’s largest country, Medvedev believes that Russia is on its way to becoming a ‘key link’ in the global information infrastructure.

At his annual address to the Kremlin assembly in November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was forceful and eloquent. In a 90-minute speech, Medvedev touched upon several issues, but there was one topic in particular that stirred up talk in Internet forums, and one bound to lead to endless debates. Should Russia tinker with its 11 renowned time zones?

There are not many countries that can make the traveler weary with jet lag just by taking a domestic flight. But Russia is one of them. Sweeping across the massive landscape of Russia, 11 time zones have long stood as a symbol of the country’s immense vastness. In his free-ranging speech, Medvedev emphasized his commitment to retooling Russia’s economy, but in the process also raised a critical question. “Have we ever stopped to think seriously about whether dividing our country this way makes it harder to manage it effectively and leads to the use of excessively costly technology?” the President asked.

It was in 1919 that Russia found itself sliced into 11 time zones from an existing four, and later in 1981, the erstwhile Soviet Union introduced the concept of daylight saving time. But Medvedev’s proposal to reinstate Russia’s pre-1919 time zone model is not new. In the wake of the recent financial crisis, these old ideas may be resurrected to create new cost-saving solutions. Experts have long pondered the benefits of reducing Russia’s time zones and bringing places like Moscow and Vladivostok closer by four hours instead of the existing seven. Using the U.S. and China as examples, Medvedev stressed that Russia’s enormity could become more manageable with fewer time zones. In the U.S, the decision to use standard time in time zones was taken after the country’s railroads found it notoriously difficult to coordinate different train schedules with each railroad using its own time. That was in 1883, and since then the continental States functions with just four time zones, facilitating ease of travel and business. But in China’s case, the decision to keep a single time zone from Beijing to Lhasa was politically driven. Mao Zedong reduced the country’s five time zones to merely one, to underscore Beijing’s place as the seat of power and project an appearance of solidarity at a time when China was deeply divided.

Now, when nations are in need of tightening their belts, the new time zone proposal is looking more and more attractive to government officials. Aside from the energy savings, communication between state officials across the broad Russian landscape would be enhanced. Transport and logistical costs could be streamlined, while media communications, such as television airtime could be coordinated and managed more efficiently. Supporters of Medvedev’s theory point also out the difficulty in doing business with Moscow from a place like say, Buryatia, which has a five-hour time difference with the country’s capital. The working day is about to begin in Moscow when businesses in Buryatia are just shutting down. With today’s businesses requiring constant communication, it has been difficult to conduct transactions if a city in the Far East, for example, has to trade goods with Moscow several time zones away.

But the responses from the Internet populace, especially in eastern cities such as Vladivostok, have been largely critical of the suggestion. The question was raised whether many would find the adjustment between their biological clocks and the mechanical time problematic. Needless to say, citizens in the far reaches of the country were not amused at the notion of going to work well before dawn. Many queried if the idea was just another way for the Kremlin to exercise greater control over Russia’s Far East, which has been restive of late. Still other critics pointed out that the reduction in time zones could potentially strangle energy resources if all businesses shared most of the working hours.

In the end, Medvedev himself understands the consequences of such a radical shift in time. “Here too we need to compare the savings made and the inconveniences the practice causes,” he stressed. Above all, one must be objective, the President emphasized. By stirring to life a dormant topic, Medvedev has called for a fresh analysis. But time will tell if Russia indeed can change itself in an era when running a tight ship counts.

 

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