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Maxim Sokolov: 'I know how to stay confident in the saddle'

© Ekaterina Shtukina/Russian government's press service/TASS
Russia’s minister of transport in a TASS special project Top Officials
Andrey Vandenko 
by
Andrey Vandenko

Andrey Vandenko was born on November 8, 1959 in Lugansk, Ukrainian SSR. In 1982, he graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev with a degree in journalism. Since 1989, he has been living and working in Moscow. For over 20 years, he has built his career as a journalist specializing in interviews. His work is published predominantly in Russia’s leading mass media outlets, and he is the recipient of numerous professional awards.

Part 1
On a comma splice dilemma, the future of VIM-Avia airlines, the domino principle, turbulence and Egypt

 

— Has your comma splice dilemma in the famous sentence “Execute him we should not pardon him” been resolved by now? I’m asking you about the “incomplete aptitude” warning you received over the collapse of VIM-Avia Airlines.

In this particular case, I’m not in the position to decide where to put the punctuation marks. That’s not my level of competence.

I was handling the tasks that the President of Russia gave me. The VIM-Avia crisis was settled promptly. Within three days, four at the most, we achieved a situation where all flights the crisis management center had deemed as essential began to be carried out. By the end of October, when the flow of passengers who had purchased VIM-Avia tickets came to an end, we suspended the air carrier’s license. Now it is in a pre-bankruptcy state. The creditors are presenting their claims step by step. In the future, if a solution suitable to all parties (investors and shareholders) fails to be reached, then VIM-Avia will face bankruptcy.

— How come VIM-Avia, which had stayed in business for many years, suffered a sudden crash landing? Was it a surprise only for the passengers, or for the Ministry of Transport and the Russian federal air transport agency, too? It turns out that no lessons have been learned from the Transaero crisis, when attempts were made to put out the blaze with a flow of cash?

I’d disagree with you. In both cases the crisis developed gradually. In a sense we had been prepared to expect air carriers to develop problems with delivering passengers someday. VIM-Avia experienced its first problems toward the end of the spring of 2017, although in the previous year its performance looked quite decent. The company even declared a profit. At a certain point, the shareholders had an idea of increasing the fleet of aircraft and leased more planes, hoping for air traffic growth. In principle, it did happen this way. The market was up nearly 20% in contrast to 2016. I’ll say a couple of words separately about that, when I’m through with the VIM-Avia question.

VIM-Avia experienced the first problems toward the end of the spring of 2017, although in the previous year its performance looked quite decent

The company’s management took too great risks and failed to assess the real state of affairs realistically enough. The planes that had been expected in the spring were provided only in the middle of the summer. Moreover, five large liners that had undergone a thorough overhaul arrived later than expected – not by the beginning of the tourist season, but in June. VIM-Avia had to cede part of the tours with pre-paid flights to other carriers. When the long-expected liners became available at last, there were not enough travelers to achieve the required seat occupancy rate. We did extend a helping hand to keep the company afloat and let it honor its obligations to passengers. Alas, the crash occurred just “one week short of the runway.” A number of creditors, (airports in the first place) demanded VIM-Avia should pay the outstanding debts and – in case of refusal – grounded its planes. The Turks were the first to do that. The Belgians followed suit. Russia’s Domodedovo drove the last nail into the coffin. The domino principle worked. It all collapsed like a house of cards. VIM-Avia had no chance to borrow from the banks, the more so, since its main partner, Bank Zenit, at about the same time was placed under the control of an external administration and lost any chance to issue unsecured loans for bridging cash-flow gaps.

It so happened that VIM-Avia shareholders cracked under pressure, and, as you know, fled Russia, thus abandoning the company. Rosaviatsiya and the Ministry of Transport had to hurry in to take the company’s day-to-day affairs in their own hands. Let me say once again, the situation was normalized virtually within several days.

— How many passengers were involved and how much did it cost?

On September 26 – October 8 more than 36,000 passengers who had tickets on VIM-Avia’s international and domestic flights were delivered to their destinations. It cost 600 million rubles ($10.3 million). Let me remind you that only 100 million rubles is reserved in the special fund that can be used for such purposes, but the federal budget’s money was not put to use this time. Aeroflot provided financial leverage at the expense of royalties and compensatory payments. In any case, our costs turned out far lower than those of our foreign counterparts who found themselves in similar situations. Britain’s oldest air carrier – Monarch Airlines (the fourth largest in volume terms) - went bankrupt in early October. Germany’s second largest air carrier Berlin Air, too, had no chance to survive the 2017 season on its own. The German government had to infuse an equivalent of ten billion rubles into its salvation.

— And still, was there any chance of preventing the collapse from happening, of preventing an all-out alarm and urgent evacuation?

As I’ve already said, we keep an eye on the situation all the time, but even quarterly reports sometimes do not allow for promptly making managerial decisions. According to 2016 statistics, VIM-Avia was in the number one risk group with stable current paying capacity. To put it in a nutshell: we can impose certain restrictions if an air carrier features in the fourth, highest risk group for six months in a row. Not even once, did VIM-Avia fall into that category. It is important to remember that air traffic is not a very lucrative business around the world, with its profitability staying within five percent. Many are faced with the risk of getting into the marginal zone. This concerns not only Russian airlines.

After the VIM-Avia probe a number of regulatory documents were adopted to tighten the financial and economic control of air carriers, in particular, those that decide to change their business model, upgrade their fleet of aircraft or start operating new types of planes. We will be monitoring that on-line. But similar situations do occur in other spheres. As we can see, many banks have to undergo streamlining.

— But Valery Okulov, your deputy responsible for aviation, had to pay for the VIM-Avia crisis. Was he chosen to be thrown under the bus?

Personally, I am well-disposed towards Valery, he is a good comrade of mine many years my senior. Everybody else in the industry sees him as a great professional.

— Whatever the case, after the probe this professional was dismissed.

He resigned of his own accord. For age reasons. Okulov in 2017 turned 65. That’s the age limit for a civil servant.

— After this storm flared up, the Investigative Committee launched criminal proceedings against VIM-Avia owner Rashid Mursekayev over abuse of power. I’m well aware that this question is not exactly your cup of tea, but nevertheless do you have any idea why arrest warrants are issued only after the suspects have safely fled Russia with no chances of ever being reached? It was not the first such case.

Each government institution has its own duties to attend to. . The Ministry of Transport is not responsible for the observance of criminal legislation. We cannot assume the function of interrogators, investigators or informers. The borderline is very narrow…

Please remember, VIM-Avia is a private company. Had we tried to meddle in its operating activity, that might have been interpreted as a violation of commercial secrets. The Transport Ministry is empowered and even obliged to control subordinate public companies, while any intervention in the affairs of private businesses must be very delicate. It’s none of our business to decide if the bankruptcy was forced or deliberate. It is up to the authorities concerned to provide an answer.

— Over the past three years, six Russian airlines have been declared bankrupt. The future of Kogalymavia will be decided in February. Are there more surprises in store for us?

Hopefully not… Nevertheless, although we operate in an open economic model, we cannot afford to give any guarantees. For now the situation in the top ten air carriers that service 80% of passengers looks stable, although just two years ago UTair airlines was in a pre-bankruptcy condition. Measures of support, including subsidies, helped it overcome turbulence. But that by no means signifies that all companies, in particular, regional ones, are in a similar financial position. Local traffic is the costliest. The demand exists but the people’s buying power is not very high.

— How many air carriers are there at the moment?

About a hundred have effective air operator certificates. Just recently there were 300 of them.

Thirty-five companies account for 99% of all passenger traffic. The other operates remote hard-to-access routes. But they are very necessary. Giants such as Aeroflot won’t solve all problems. Moreover, it lacks its own fleet of short-haul aircraft.

— What airlines have you had a chance to fly?

Many. S7, UTair, Rossiya and Avrora… Just recently I flew Azimut to get to Rostov. A little bit earlier I tried Pobeda, when I had to get back to Moscow from Cheboksary. I fly Aeroflot most often.

This flagship of our air traffic industry controls about 50% of the market, it is very close to the limit where special tariff and price controls may be applied. To tell you the truth, I do not think it is a great problem the national carrier bears the main burden. This practice is widespread in Europe and some other parts of the world. Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways use the same models to take up a significant share of the market in their respective countries. True, an eye must be kept on pricing, but there is the Federal Antimonopoly Service for this. By the way, last year the average price of an air ticket was down four percent.

Another telling sign is that people have been flying much more domestically. Of the 89 million air passengers in 2016, 56 million travelled inside Russia. In 2017, international passenger traffic was up 30%, but Russia’s domestic market remained the leader, gaining another ten points. In reality, that’s the way it should be.

— And what do 2017 statistics look like?

There’s been growth by more than 15%. That’s a record for Russian aviation. For the first time ever, we’ve soared above 100 million passengers.

— Have you made any forecasts for next year?

Resumption of flights to Egyptian health resorts is quite real

Trees can never grow sky-high. Fast growth cannot last indefinitely, but if the links that were terminated earlier are restored, the market will get a strong impetus. For now, we aren’t putting any stakes on Ukraine, which once accounted for about 3.5 million passengers a year, but the resumption of flights to Egyptian health resorts is quite real. That’s another six million passengers a year at best.

— For the time being only flights to Cairo have been agreed on.

Yes, on December 15 my Egyptian counterpart Sherif Fathi and yours truly signed an intergovernmental protocol, due to take effect in 30 days’ time. Regular flights to the Egyptian capital may begin in February 2018. I’ve asked Aeroflot CEO Vitaly Saveliev to resume operation in Cairo and to conclude a contract with the new terminal from where Aeroflot planes will be landing and taking off.

— What about Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh?

The chances of resuming air links with Egypt’s seaside resorts during the winter season are slim. It’s a task to be addressed in the longer perspective. In this particular case, the dates do not depend on us.

Part 2
On degrees of freedom, rabbits in medical research, university years and Soviet childhood

 

— A few words, please, about progress in building new airports across Russia.

In the spring of 2018 new terminals will open in Simferopol and Moscow – in Domodedovo and the northern zone of Sheremetievo. Also there, in Sheremetievo, a third runway will open ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

In 2017, we opened terminals in Tyumen, Anapa, Kaliningrad and Perm. A new airport is due to open in Krasnoyarsk within days. A New Year gift! Just recently, Platov Airport went operational in Rostov-on-Don. The latter is the largest of the projects accomplished lately. Everything was built from scratch – the runway, the taxiways, boarding ramps, the terminal, the emergency and rescue facility and the control towers… Investments totaled 57 billion rubles ($974 million). The holding company Airports of Regions (an affiliate of the group of companies Renova) poured 20 billion rubles ($341 million) into the air complex, and this much was earmarked from the federal budget for infrastructure. Also, the regional authorities made their own contributions to the road, sewage and engineering infrastructures. Everybody chipped in. In fact, it was a good example of public-private partnership.]

With governor of the Rostov region Vasily Golubev and head of Renova Group Viktor Vekselberg at the opening of the Platov airport's new terminal, 2017 Valery Matytsin/TASS
With governor of the Rostov region Vasily Golubev and head of Renova Group Viktor Vekselberg at the opening of the Platov airport's new terminal, 2017
© Valery Matytsin/TASS

Work is in progress in other regions, too. In Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a long-delayed project has been completed for upgrading the runway and the airdrome facilities. The airport is now capable of accommodating any type of aircraft.

In the spring of 2018, new terminals will open in Simferopol and Moscow – in Domodedovo and the northern zone of Sheremetyevo. Also there, in Sheremetyevo, a third runway will open ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. By June, the finishing touches will be put to the second units of the airports in Volgograd and Kaliningrad, which are to host World Cup matches, too. Upgraded terminals will open in Ulyanovsk and Saransk. The airport in Saratov is to be finalized by the end of the year.

— Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov says he would like to turn Khrabrovo into a stopover airport, a transit hub on the way from Russia to Europe.

This is a sound idea and there are opportunities for making it come true. The “fifth freedom of the air” rank is enjoyed by Kaliningrad, Ulan-Ude, Sochi and Vladivostok. This is a great competitive edge, but an air carrier will have to be stationed at Khrabrovo first before it can lay claim to this status. It will be possible to contemplate the servicing of transit flows only after that.

Rostov at once established its own air carrier, called Azimut. For now it operates four SuperJet liners. There are plans to beef up the fleet to seven and eventually to ten. Businesses are to show initiative. It would be wrong for the government to dictate solutions. The fact that there must be a vigorous government policy promoting air traffic is a totally different matter. We are working on five federal support programs, first and foremost, for regional aviation, with special emphasis placed on the Far East, Kaliningrad and Crimea. Inter-regional air traffic bypassing the Moscow air hub is a separate topic.

— Why doesn’t St. Petersburg, the city you come from, turn Pulkovo into a full-fledged hub for the Northwest?

In reality, Pulkovo in 2017 showed a record-high result. Under the adopted development model investors had plans for achieving a level of 17 million passengers a year sometime later. These parameters will become the point of departure for grasping Pulkovo’s newly acquired capabilities. There should be a more aggressive marketing, logistic and information policy to compete with neighboring Helsinki. The Finns have been ahead all the time, but Pulkovo is reducing its lag at a good pace and the odds are it may catch up with Vantaa in the near future.

— Air incidents are not a very pleasant subject to discuss. An Antonov-2 plane crashed in the Nenets Autonomous Region just recently killing two…

It goes without saying that any death is a tragedy, but the past few years were without major emergencies. The statistics of grave incidents remained at record lows. I do hope it will be so further on, touch wood. The last regular flight disaster occurred in November 2013, when a Boeing-737 from Tatarstan Airlines crashed in Kazan while trying to land. The later incidents were not directly linked with causes within the Transport Ministry’s competence.

— There’s been much speculation about creating a unified agency of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) for investigating air incidents. Has any progress been achieved along this track?

An agreement is being drafted. It is to be signed by the five EAEU members – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus and Russia. Hopefully, we will have a final version ready at the beginning of 2018. The agreement will be open for any country’s signature that may decide to join in.

We have a road map for air traffic liberalization with the Eurasian Commission. This is another important instrument of implementing the EAEU’s common aviation policy. We reached a deal (and it was not easy at all, believe me) that by 2025 we will lift the existing barriers and our markets will in fact be turned into a common airspace.

— December 25 marks one year since a Tupolev-154 airliner of the Russian Defense Ministry with performing artists on board crashed on the way to Syria after a refueling stop in Sochi. You were appointed chief of the government commission that was formed to deal with the aftermath of the disaster. What did you find out?

I was in charge of the commission that worked on the air crash cleanup. The Defense Ministry, Emergencies Ministry and Interior Ministry pooled efforts to promptly cope with their tasks. We can only deeply grieve for those who were there on board that are gone, never to return. A friend of mine, director of the Defense Ministry’s department of culture, Anton Gubankov, was one of the passengers of that flight. We’d known each other long. In the 2000s, we worked in St. Petersburg’s city administration side by side. And we were neighbors in Moscow. What else can I say? A terrible plight.

The Defense Ministry’s special panel of inquiry was conducting the investigation.

— Will its official report be published?

That’s a question to be asked at the Investigative Committee. I’m not prepared to answer. It would be rather odd and tactless, if I dared to comment on conclusions made by professionals. I can see no reasons to call them in question.

Let’s now talk about something in a lighter vein. I promise not to touch the sore spot of professional aptitude any more. I’d like to clear on thing up though: was it the first such incident in your life? In which you would fail a test and be sent to read up for an examination again?

I think nothing of the kind has ever happened since my university years, even my school years. Anyway, the examination session is not over yet. It’s too early to summarize the results. Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched. In the spring we’ll see.

I’ve always been a good student, I graduated from school with straight ‘A’s. Then I graduated Leningrad University with honors. I earned only top marks.

— You set your eyes on the political economics department, although in 1985 many already got the impression that Karl Marx’s theory was losing relevance.

What makes you so ironic? Capital is a great work on economics, resting upon a solid philosophical groundwork.

In reality, I was faced with a stark choice. There was the probability that I might have opted for medical school. My grandmother had been a laboratory assistant at the Institute of Experimental Medicine. She had worked side by side with physiologist Ivan Pavlov. As a boy, I spent many hours at the laboratory doing experiments.

— On dogs?

On rabbits. I even authored a research paper on atherosclerosis that would win an award at a national educational contest. One group of rabbits was given food with a high content of cholesterol, while the other group was on a strict diet. Then comparisons were made, and methods and means of countering the disease proposed.

Report to the first secretary of the Leningrad Regional Committee of the VLKSM Valentina Matvienko, 1984 Archive of Saint Petersburg City Palace of Youth Creativity
Report to the first secretary of the Leningrad Regional Committee of the VLKSM Valentina Matvienko, 1984
© Archive of Saint Petersburg City Palace of Youth Creativity

In the end, I chose to go to university and study political economy. I thought that my mentality, my active involvement in public affairs as a member of the Young Pioneers movement in my younger years and my membership in the Young Communist League were a better match for an economic education.

Both granddads had worked at the Nobel industrial plant, later renamed to Russian Diesel. My parents graduated from the Forest Academy. My father worked at a design institute of the petrochemical association Plastpolimer and my mother was a teacher of materials science and engineering at a vocational school that trained building specialists. I did not follow in their footsteps.

To be admitted to the political economy department I had to present a recommendation from the Communist Party cell and the Young Communist League. One of those who signed my credentials was the chief of the Leningrad Region’s Communist Party office, member of the Soviet Communist Party’s ruling Politburo Lev Zaikov.

— What were your special merits?

At a certain point, I led the city’s central office of the Young Pioneers’ movement.

In my family archive, I still keep a photograph taken on May 19, 1984, the day of the movement’s anniversary. Before a procession in the city’s main square I’m making a report to the chief of the Leningrad Region’s Young Communist League, Valentina Matviyenko. That was an occasion to remember! Two decades later I gave her a copy of this photo as a gift. At that moment she was St. Petersburg’s governor, while I was a member of her team as the chief of the committee on investment.

Mind you, when Matviyenko invited me for a job in the city’s administration, she did not have the slightest suspicion I was that teenage boy who saluted her and reported to her in the 1980s. As for me, I remembered very well my YCL superior all the time.

— During your university years you were drafted into the army. Didn’t you try to dodge?

After my second year at the University I was drafted for two years to serve in an air defense unit

I never had thoughts like that! The same is true of my other fellow students. After my second year at the University I was drafted for two years to serve in an air defense unit. I was in charge of a shoulder-launched air defense missile Strela-2 – the Soviet equivalent of Stinger. Our unit was near the locality called Kokkorevo, on Lake Ladoga, the starting point of the Road of Life (the ice road winter transport route across the frozen Lake Ladoga, which provided the only access to the besieged city of Leningrad during World War II). One of my granddads, my mother’s father, in 1942 was among those who evacuated Russian Diesel’s equipment from the besieged city. History works in mysterious ways…

— Did you experience hazing while in the army?

There were many college and university students among the conscripts, so we did not feel the effects of the negative wave. It rolled past somehow. Besides, those were perestroika years, everything around was simmering with enthusiasm and expectation of change. Political debates were frequent even in the barracks and the rank-and-file were bold enough to argue with officers.

After military service, I returned to university. Although I had been doing my best in the army to read a lot and leaf through the notes I’d made during my lectures so as not to lose momentum, getting back to my university studies after the pause was not easy.

Once back in my department at the university, I took my fifth year exams ahead of time, without attending classes, thus compensating for one year spent on military service. As a holder of a diploma with honors, I was invited to stay at the university as a teacher. Salaries in those years were very modest, to say the least. Financial stability was out of the question. After two years of teaching, I quit to start a business of my own, where I stayed up to 2004, when I was offered a job at the Valentina Matviyenko-led administration of the city of St. Petersburg.

During my business career, my colleagues and I implemented several ambitious construction and development projects. I take special pride in them.

For instance?

The first company we founded was called Rossi. The choice of the name was not accidental. The firm’s business was to restore to the original look of the practically ruined pavilions that architect Carlo Rossi built in Ostrovsky Square in front of the Aleksandrinsky Theater.

On Italian Street, next to Manezh Square there is a facility built by another company of ours – Corporation S. The apartment building at 1 Fontanka Street, and Finland’s new consulate near the Transfiguration Cathedral were other projects we carried out.

And you were the CEO in both companies.

Yes. We were doing well enough. Our business was not bad at all.

— What made you embark on a career as a civil servant?

Even after I became a businessman, I stayed active as a public activist involved in various non-profit undertakings. I was elected deputy president of the St. Petersburg Builders’ Association and worked hard for laying the regulatory basis in the field of urban construction. So the proposal I received from Deputy Governor Yuri Molchanov, the overseer of the investment affairs, and Governor Valentina Matviyenko, was not a great surprise to me.

The construction of a new terminal at Pulkovo Airport and the Western High-Speed Diameter and other facilities were under the supervision of the city’s committee for investment and strategic projects. I treated them as my own brainchild and did my utmost to ensure they succeed

The construction of a new terminal at Pulkovo Airport and the Western High-Speed Diameter and other facilities were under the supervision of the city’s committee for investment and strategic projects. I treated them as my own brainchild and did my utmost to ensure they succeed. Incidentally, in Pulkovo we did not spend a single ruble of federal budget money. Private investment and the city’s own funding was enough.

St. Petersburg’s own automobile industry was created from scratch. It was another successful project worth mentioning. In just three years, Nissan, Toyota and Hyundai opened assembly plants there.

When you took a civil service job you began to earn less, didn’t you?

I made no gains, you can be sure about that. But I’d managed to create a good basis while I was in business. So I’ve felt quite comfortable in material terms all the way. I have enough, I should say.

— Did you sell up the shares of the businesses you’d been running?

They fell apart when I left. Both Rossi and Corporation S. Other shareholders bowed out. There was no chance for me to be a civil servant and run a private business at the same time. The companies withered away very soon.

Part 3
On long life spans, bridges, roads, the Platon toll system for long-distance truckers and equestrian sports

 

—You moved to Moscow in 2009, am I right?

Yes, when I was appointed director of the Russian government’s industry and infrastructure department. And on May 21, 2012 there followed a presidential decree on my appointment as transport minister. Before that I’d been interviewed by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. That’s the official procedure.

— Did you get acquainted with both in St. Petersburg?

You should understand there is a great difference between occasionally finding oneself in Vladimir Putin’s company and being noticed by him. Naturally, in the company of my colleagues I welcomed Putin more than once during his trips to St. Petersburg, including his visits to automobile plants under construction or those being inaugurated. I even made some comments, when I was asked to, but this is not exactly what one calls acquaintance.

As for Dmitry Medvedev, our first one-on-one meeting was in Moscow in May 2012, when candidates for the positions of government ministers were being considered.

In a word, we do not share a common past in St. Petersburg. There’s nothing to be looked for. True, we studied at the same university, but the departments were different.

With presidential aide Igor Levitin and Russian president Vladimir Putin, 2014 Alexei Druzhinin/TASS
With presidential aide Igor Levitin and Russian president Vladimir Putin, 2014
© Alexei Druzhinin/TASS

— Your government is to start packing bags before long…

This sounds too pessimistic. I’d put it differently: under the Russian Constitution the Cabinet of Ministers is obliged to resign after the returns from the March 18, 2018 presidential election are announced.

— Six years in office is quite an achievement, particularly so in our turbulent times.

I’d gladly agree with that. Our government ranks number one in life spans in the history of modern Russia. Some of the transport ministers had soldiered on longer than me. Igor Levitin was in office from 2004 to 2012.

But I should say that during our tenure we had to stand quite a few serious tests – geopolitical turmoil and internal challenges. For me it all began with preparations for the APEC summit in Vladivostok in September 2012. It was not easy at all, if you remember. The Ministry of Transport was responsible for the commissioning of the landmark bridge to Russky Island across the Eastern Bosphorus Strait. It was a unique project in the history of Russian bridge-building. Much of what was accomplished then had never been done before. At a certain moment we had problems with the suspension ropes. Then a fire halted work for a while. In the end the bridge opened on time.

The Universiade in Kazan was next. By the summer of 2013 we opened a new international terminal at the local airport, upgraded the main railway station, built a passenger hub for bus and commuter train services, laid 65 kilometers of roads, repaired dozens of city streets and commissioned eleven highway interchanges…

Then there followed the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which was another ambitious project that required strenuous efforts. I still see Olympic facilities in my dreams at night. They were our sole obsession in life then. We spent days and nights at the construction sites. Even with my eyes closed I can easily brief you on the main facts and figures - more than 100 kilometers of roads, 22 tunnels, and two new ports – one in Sochi and the other in the Imereti Lowlands, along with a new seaside airport at Adler. The last tunnel, which is now part of the parallel road to Kurortny Avenue, was drilled through two or three days before New Year’s of 2014. And it opened to traffic three days before the Olympics’ opening ceremony, on February 4.

— Last-minute rushes seem to be an ineradicable habit of ours.

In March 2014, Crimea reunited with Russia, so summer time was the deadline for us to arrange for steady transport links – flights to and back from Simferopol and automobile traffic to Kerch and from there, by ferry to Crimea

The project was really hard to accomplish.

And even after that there was no chance for us to relax. In March 2014, Crimea reunited with Russia, so summer time was the deadline for us to arrange for steady transport links – flights to and from Simferopol and automobile traffic to Kerch and from there, and by ferry to Crimea. Ukraine had already blocked the onshore railways across its territory…

Nobody had anticipated the pile of problems we had to deal with. But the 2014 season was enough to purchase ferries, build crucial port infrastructures and get the process into order.

— Sometimes people had to stand in line for as long as 30 hours before getting onto the ferry.

The ferry service had never been expected to cope with such enormous traffic flows. Naturally it fell short of the demand. But let me say once again that in 2015 the strain eased a lot. We managed to provide acceptable solutions. Currently the ferry service operates with clockwork precision. Ferries are in and out every twenty minutes. I reckon it’s a unique example in world history.

Simferopol’s airport promptly expanded and upgraded its terminal to increase its capacity five-fold. These days, even without counting railway and motor road traffic through the Perekop Isthmus, far more visitors come to Crimea by air and by motor transport than in any single year during the period when the peninsula was part of Ukraine. According to my forecasts, the number of passengers who have made trips to Crimea and back in 2017 will climb to above 11 million. More than six million used the Kerch ferry service (the level was achieved on December 13), and another five million travelled by air.

— Do you visit the bridge construction site often?

Once in two months or so. But I inspect not just the bridge, which has just been given its official name – the Crimean Bridge. A number of major, large-scale projects are being implemented in Taman and Kerch. By and large, this transport link (including related railway and motor road infrastructure) is 80 kilometers long. Crimea’s road Tavrida undergoes fundamental upgrade. This four-lane first class road stretching to Sevastopol is to be finished by 2020. The two-lane section of it to Simferopol is to be either upgraded or laid anew by the end of 2018.

Inspection of the construction of the Crimea bridge, 2017 Alexey Troshkin/Ministry of Transport of Russia
Inspection of the construction of the Crimea bridge, 2017
© Alexey Troshkin/Ministry of Transport of Russia

— Will the highway Don cope with the pressure?

I believe it will. Over the years, we’ve tried to eliminate all bottlenecks. As a matter of fact, only one problematic section between Losevo and Pavlovsk in the Voronezh Region still remains. We will be finished with it in 2019.  When that’s done, the Don road will have four lanes from beginning to end.

— What are you plans for toll roads?

The central ring road around Moscow 300 kilometers long will open by 2020

As global experience shows, toll roads account for no more than five percent of all roads. Today we have more than 50,000 kilometers of federal roads. We plan to turn another 10,000 kilometers into federal property to help the regions. The overall length of toll roads is no greater than 1,000 kilometers. In 2018, the Moscow-Petersburg road M-11 will be operational all through. Its 670 kilometers will open to traffic next autumn, in less than a year. Quite an event is due!

The central ring road around Moscow 300 kilometers long will open by 2020. Regions are actively involved in road-building projects. Work is in progress on a 30-kilometer road circumventing Khabarovsk, and in the Perm Region, on a road bypassing Chusovoy and a bridge across the eponymous river. A bridge is under construction in Novosibirsk and two projects are being implemented in Bashkortostan. In a word, public-private partnership starts yielding fruit in Siberia, in the Far East and in the Urals.

— What about the Platon toll system for long-distance truckers? Can they expect any discounts?

The system’s operation is stable. It keeps on record about one million users. No more than 150,000 vehicles are not on the list. One can say with certainty the Platon toll covers an overwhelming majority of heavy trucks. As for discounts, I should remind you that a tariff discount has been in effect since 2015. I believe that some discounts may be possible when the current rate begins to be changed, but there have been no decisions on that score yet.

— What’s your opinion of electromobiles. Do you believe in their shining future?

It’s a real trend the automobile engineering industry will follow in making both private and commercial passenger vehicles. In many Chinese megapolises, one in five public transport vehicles is electric-powered. In Russia, less than 1,000 electromobiles are registered at the moment. It’s even less than a drop in the ocean. I’m certain, though, that we’ll see the ratio change within a decade.

— When you are free to choose, what means of transportation do you prefer?

A bicycle! That is if the weather permits, I go for a ride every day. During my student years, I used to bicycle to the university and back.

Incidentally, there is a bicycle parking garage in the Transport Ministry’s yard. There is a shower room and a locker room. It’s quite decent.

— Is there a VIP place reserved for the minister?

Honestly, since the moment I moved to Moscow I’ve not used a bike to get to work more than once. My home is outside the MKAD ring road. It’s a long way to the Transport Ministry’s office on Rozhdestvenka Street. Dedicated bike lanes are not available everywhere. Trying to get through traffic jams on a bike is not a very pleasant pastime. Yet some of my colleagues, including deputies whose homes are in the center do cycle to work.

I prefer to ride in the country before or after work, at least five to ten kilometers.

Leningrad Region Governor’s Cup in show jumping, 2007 Personal archive of Maxim Sokolov
Leningrad Region Governor’s Cup in show jumping, 2007
© Personal archive of Maxim Sokolov

On weekends, I prefer to do other sports. Skiing, skating and outdoor ice hockey in the winter and tennis and the equestrian sport – by tradition – in summer. Although it would be more correct to say – riding on horseback. Any sport implies regular training. There’s no chance for that today.

— That means there was such a chance in the past, right?

I did equestrian sports for more than 20 years.

— That sounds impressing!

Yes, I know how to stay confident in the saddle, if that’s what you mean.

— How did you start this hobby?

One day I went on a pleasure ride on the cost of the Gulf of Finland. And my highest sports achievement was in the late 2000s, when I won the Leningrad Region Governor’s Cup in show jumping.

— Do you have a horse of your own?

You need a horse, if you do the sport on the daily basis. I kept one in the past. And not just for myself, but also for my kids. I managed to share my hobby with them.

Maxim Sokolov's eldest son Maxim during the Changing of the Guards Ceremony on the Kremlin's Cathedral Square, 2016 Alexey Troshkin/Ministry of Transport of Russia
Maxim Sokolov's eldest son Maxim during the Changing of the Guards Ceremony on the Kremlin's Cathedral Square, 2016
© Alexey Troshkin/Ministry of Transport of Russia

— You have three children, if I’m not mistaken.

Three boys. Maxim, Roman and Konstantin, aged 21, 20 and 12 respectively. The elder ones study management at the University. I did not interfere in their choice. Incidentally, Maxim’s service in the army in 2015 was in a mounted squadron of the Presidential Regiment stationed in Alabino. He participated in horse parades in the Kremlin, in the May 9 V-Day march-past and the Spasskaya Tower International Military Music Festival.

I’m a proud father.

— And you need to give (them) an example of what to do next in life and where to move on to.

I’ve told you about the many projects still ahead for me. I’d have to keep working on and on. I’m neck-deep in my responsibilities.

— And what will be after March 2018?

It’s up to the President to decide.

— Some speculate you’d make an ideal match for the post of St. Petersburg’s governor. Isn’t the idea worth giving thought to?

Really, I’d prefer not to discuss such matters in match-making terms. I have my job to do, and I will be going and going to the bitter end like a high-endurance battery.

— Do you feel you are charged well enough?

I’m in “power plus” mode.

Andrey Vandenko 
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