Alaska, Chukotka, and the Oligarch Governor
Thanks to "one of Russia's oligarchsa new awakening of vitality and change is occurring in Chukotka," remarked Vic Fisher, Professor of Public Affairs, University of Alaska, Anchorage, and Director, Alaska Chukotka Development Program, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 6 May 2002. After nearly ten years of stagnation and despair, residents of the northeastern Russian region have hope and optimism about the future. Fisher explained how Roman Abramovich, one of Russia's richest men, "almost accidentally fell into Chukotka" and whose presence has changed the perceptions of the Russian Far North.
Fisher began with a brief summary of the historical ties between Chukotka and Alaska. Fromancient peoples' travels across the Bering land bridge to Alaska's role in the establishment of Russia-America, the two regions have deep, historic ties in terms of both recorded history and local mentality. Fisher noted that there are nearly 100 Russian Orthodox churches throughout the Alaskan countryside and Russian names remain a vital part of the local tradition. Prior to 1948, free interaction and open exchanges occurred between the two sides, but after the "Ice Curtain" came down, travel between the areas was suspended with neither side showing any real interest in continuing relations. In 1988, Gorbachev's perestroika marked a new beginning for the region as cultural, scientific, and educational exchanges between the two sides were organized and new business relationships began to form. However, this new era of openness was short-lived when in 1992, newly-elected Governor Aleksandr Nazarov closed the region to outsiders.
Fisher stated that Nazarov formed a "Stalinist-style dictatorship that attacked the nativeindigenous groups in Chukotka," limiting their ability to "leave the Soviet-style of work and living and return to their more traditional way of life." At a time when the Russian government greatly reduced its subsidies for regions of the north, Nazarov restricted the indigenous tribes from taking care of themselves. Fisher also noted that there were accusations of corruption and stealing, and many reports of Nazarov and his supporters using federal money to buy real estate in Alaska, Seattle, and Hawaii. Although no proof of this was ever found, the indigenous tribes claimed to see little of the federal money sent to the region.
In May 2000, after reports of widespread starvation and disease, a group of Alaskans, led by Fisher, decided to get involved. They formulated a strategy that involved Roman Abramovich, one of Russia's "oligarchs," who had recently been elected to the Russian Duma from theChukotka region. Fisher's group arranged meetings in Alaska between Abramovich and Alaskastate officials, major oil and mining company representatives, bankers, and tourism industry experts to discuss Chukotka's economic prospects. Abramovich also met with many of the
humanitarian aid organizations that had found it impossible to penetrate the Chukotka barrier.Abramovich came away from the meetings resolved to develop Chukotka on the Alaskan model,and directed his oil company, Sibneft, to move into the region and begin exploratory drilling. By fall 2000, Abramovich realized that much more needed to be done, and announced his candidacy for governor.
Many critics questioned Abramovich's motives in running for governor and very few gave him a chance at defeating the incumbent Nazarov. However, in the weeks leading up to the election an investigation into Nazarov's financial dealings was started by the tax-police, causing him to withdraw his candidacy. Once Nazarov withdrew his name from the ballot, Abramovich easily won the election, garnering over 90 percent of the vote. Abramovich's election as governor spawned a reopening of relations that had begun in 1988. Interactions between Alaska and Chukotka once again began to flourish and Fisher, along with others, began to look for ways to transport the Alaskan model to Chukotka.
Fisher explained how increased cooperation and the infusion of capital have led to thesuccessful implementation of USAID and State Department-funded projects. Fisher noted that plans to provide modern housing, schools, and technical assistance to the Eskimos in rural Chukotka are progressing. Fisher and his colleagues are also developing an idea, put forward by the Alaskan and Russian native people, of creating a family center to address social issues such as sobriety and unemployment.
According to Fisher, Abramovich has brought a phenomenal amount of change to Chukotka, but more importantly, he has provided hope and optimism about the future to residents of the region. Fisher further stated that while most residents maintain guarded optimism about oil being discovered, steps are being taken to develop the tourism and fishing industries, including the recent construction of several fish processing plants. In conclusion, Fisher said that he has confidence in the changes that are occurring and believes that the Alaska-Chukotka relationship will only continue to expand.
-by Nicholas Wheeler