Image under the headline, "Planning to sink: What happens if Kiribati drowns?"
Eleanor Ainge Roy, theguardian.com
Monday 6 February 2017 18.30 EST Last modified on Monday 6 February 2017 20.07 EST
A Russian millionaire is in advanced talks with the Kiribati government to lease three uninhabited islands and establish an alternative Russia and revive the monarchy.
Russian Anton Bakov and his wife Maria are planning to re-establish the Romanov Empire on three remote islands in the south Pacific nation of Kiribati, and invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the impoverished island’s economy.
The Russian monarchy was overthrown by the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and Bakov, a businessman and former Russian MP, has devoted himself to reviving it – which over the years has included exploring options for a base in Montenegro and the Cook Islands.
Bakov has now proposed leasing the uninhabited islands of Malden, Starbuck and Millennium to use as a base for his “alternative Russia”, as well as building infrastructure for tourists and businesses.
According to Bakov and the Kiribati government, the three islands are completely uninhabited and undeveloped and Bakov’s offer is the largest investment ever considered by the island nation.
“We were drawn to Kiribati due to the wonderful climate, big and spacious uninhabited islands and small population, which would obviously benefit from our financial assistance” said Bakov by email.
Bakov’s son Mikhail first approached the Kiribati government in late 2015 with his father’s investment plan.
After meeting with the Bakov’s [JB - sic] earlier this year the President of Kiribati, Taneti Mamau, set out with a number of government ministers to inspect the three islands in person.
The round-trip was expected to take up to a month and a decision on whether to proceed with the deal would be made on the president’s return near the end of February.
“We are planning to construct air and sea ports, solar power stations, freshwater plants, hospitals, schools and settlements for the employees,” said Bakov.
“The main economic objects of the islands will be eco-friendly hotels and fish processing plants. We would also develop tropical agriculture and Russian Imperial University.”
The development of the islands would take between ten to fifteen years, estimated Bakov, and it was projected up to 1000 I-Kiribati – as residents of the islands are known – largely recruited from Christmas Island some 670km away, would eventually be employed.
The first stage of the project would be an immediate financial injection of US$120m to the Kiribati government, said Bakov, followed by US$230m for the first stage of infrastructure construction on Malden Island, as well as additional taxes and customs for the Kiribati government.
Although the islands would act as a base for the Romanov Empire, Bakov did not anticipate many Russians migrating permanently to Kiribati, as the climate was too harsh and the distance would be too great.
“The equatorial climate doesn’t suit so well the Russian people ... we consider that the immigration to Australia and NZ will still be much more desirable for them,” he said.
“So we would assume the quantity of the Russian people living permanently on the islands will be one to two percent. However financial investments from the Russians will be much more considerable.”
Emil Schutz, an I-Kiribati MP who has been working closely with the Bakovs on the project, said his country had tried for decades to spark international investment in Kiribati, but rising sea-levels and the projected impact of climate change were a strong deterrent.
Although large swaths of Kiribati are at imminent threat of rising sea levels, Malden Island is higher than the mainland of Kiribati and the effects of climate change would take longer to be felt, Schutz said.
Schutz said the Bakov’s monetary investment in Kiribati was the government’s primary concern, and the establishment of a base for the Romanov Empire was a secondary consideration, but Schutz felt the impact of reviving the Russian monarchy had been overstated and that was not the Bakov’s primary motivation for investing in Kiribati.
“These islands are very remote and far away from the main islands, and if the government wanted to do something to develop them it would cost millions of dollars, which is not a priority at the moment,” said Schutz, who said the proposal was currently being assessed by the Foreign Investment Commission.
“The country has been looking for investors since independence, and no one has been interested in investing any money. It is a good thing that someone is looking at doing something on these islands that aren’t being used by the government or people living on them. I would be very interested to see something happen on these islands.”
According to Schutz, the three islands in question are arid and lacking in natural resources, having been extensively mined of their rich phosphate stores by an Australian mining company many decades ago.