Page last updated at 06:11 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

Changing times in Russia

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed reducing the number of time zones spanning his vast country. He did not say by how many, but Russia currently has 11 time zones. The BBC's Penny Spiller reports on how Moscow could go about making it happen.

Clocks in Moscow
Are times a' changing in Russia?

At the time of writing this, it is just after 1500 (GMT+2) in Kaliningrad. People in this west Russian exclave, between Poland and Lithuania, still have a few more hours of work before heading home for their dinner.

In Kamchatka, in the far east of Russia, people have long since left work and had their dinner. In fact it is 0100 (GMT+12), and the majority are probably fast asleep in their beds.

In between the two ends of this, the world's largest country, lie another nine time zones.

President Medvedev said, when he raised the issue in his state of the nation speech, that Russians had "traditionally been accustomed to feeling a pride" in how many time zones the country had "because to us it seemed a vivid illustration of the greatness of our motherland".


Andrei Ostalski of BBC Russian says that the large number of time zones is one of the factors Russians point to as an example of their country's greatness.

But not everybody thinks that way, he adds.

"A lot of thinking people have been saying for a very long time that it is actually a problem. It could explain why Russia has so many problems with governance," he says.

"It raises lots of questions about whether you can keep a country as big as this together. Should it be, for instance, a federation?"

President Medvedev made mention in his speech of the difficulties in having so many time zones.

"Have we ever thought about to what extent such a fractional division allows for an effective governance of our country. Does it not result in the use of too costly technologies?"

He pointed out that the US and China - other very large countries - "show that it is possible to cope with a smaller time difference".

The president did not mention how many time zones might be cut, but Vladivostock Economics University rector Gennady Lazarev told the RIA Novosti news agency that it could be reduced to just four - one each for Kaliningrad, Moscow, the Ural Mountains region and Siberia and the Far East.

Real problems

Stephen Dalziel, executive director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce (RBCC) and a former BBC correspondent, saw first hand the difficulties while on a recent work trip to south-east Russia.

The city of Blagoveshchensk lies on the border with China, some 8,000km (5,000 miles) and six time zones east of Moscow.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Mr Medvedev wants expert views on the proposals

Between Moscow's working day starting and Blagoveshchensk's working day ending there is a window of some three hours or so to get business done.

"It does cause businesses there a real problem. It gives them a very short working day in which to contact Moscow. It causes even more problems when they want to do business with Europe," he said.

"I think businesses in Blagoveshchensk would say that even a four hour time difference with Moscow would make things much easier for them."

Not surprisingly, the number one trading partner for many businesses in Blagoveshchensk is China, which lies just across the Amur river. But in all other respects, the city is typically Russian, Mr Dalziel says.

Of the business people he met, he said: "They realise that doing business in China makes geographical sense, but they don't want to be cut off from Moscow, or Europe for that matter."

So how do you go about changing a country's time zones?

Jonathan Betts of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich says it is not actually very difficult.

"It would be done very much in the same way that daylight saving is adopted," he explained. "The most important thing is to make sure that everyone knows about it. If that is done, there shouldn't be any problems whatsoever."

It is not just citizens and institutions within the country that need to know. Other countries also need to be informed, so that international flight times and global telecommunication systems for instance can be changed.

"The only thing that can't be changed is the fact that the sun will not be in the same position that it used to be at a given time," Mr Betts said.

I think it needs to be thoroughly researched and tested. It must be demonstrated that there are practical and economic benefits to reducing the number of time zones
Andrei Ostalski, BBC Russian

He points out that while there are sometimes economic and cultural advantages to changing time zones, a political motive often lies behind the move.

This has long been associated with the Chinese Communist Party's decision to have one time zone - Beijing time - in a country that is so vast it spans five time zones.

The decision to move time in Venezuela back half an hour in 2007 was criticised as an unnecessary attempt by President Hugo Chavez to exert his power - although he insisted an earlier dawn would increase the country's productivity.

"It is an ultimate statement of power to show your people that you have control over nature in this way," Mr Betts says.

There is no suggestion that Mr Medvedev is attempting to exert his power with this proposal.

In fact, Andrei Ostalski suggests the president may have intended it to be a populist touch to an otherwise fairly dry state of the nation address.

He thinks the proposals will be taken seriously in Moscow, but hopes that no changes will be made without careful consideration of their effects.

"I think it needs to be thoroughly researched and tested. It must be demonstrated that there are practical and economic benefits to reducing the number of time zones," Mr Ostalski said.

Mr Medvedev himself seems to want the same thing.

"I hope that experts will give us an objective, I stress an objective, answer to these questions," he said in his speech.

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