Bering Strait: New head of Chukotka is more open to West

Elizabeth Manning
(reprint from "Anchorage Daily News", 16 October 2001)

A new governor in the Russian Far East has renewed hope for research and cultural exchanges between Alaska and Russia as well as dreams of an international park spanning the Bering Strait.

As recently as last summer, Alaska researchers traveling to nearby Chukotka were often detained by Russian authorities and sometimes even threatened with jail.

That happens less often now. The difference, according to Alaskans who maintain ties to Chukotka, is Roman Abramovich, a Muscovite billionaire in his mid-30s who was elected governor of Chukotka in December.

Under Abramovich, Chukotka is more open to the West than it has been in years. "Chukotka now has a governor that wants ties to Alaska," said Sue Steinacher of Fairbanks, who has studied relationships between Alaskans and Chukotkans with funding from the National Park Service. "The last governor wanted to slam that door shut."

After years in official limbo, the idea of a Russian-American park is expected to come up during discussions this week at the National Park Service's annual Beringia Days conference in Anchorage. The conference, held Thursday and Friday at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, is open to the public.

The United States and Russia first agreed to work cooperatively on an international park in 1990, but the idea stalled. There was political opposition in Alaska, and former Chukotka Gov. Alexander Nazarov was unwilling to discuss the project.

Rather than pursuing a park designation, the Park Service instead spent $450,000 annually on research and cultural projects -- the sort of work an international park would do if created. But even then, Nazarov in Chukotka often thwarted research and kept foreign visitors out, according to Park Service officials and Russian experts in Alaska.

When he left office, Nazarov said he had kept Chukotka "pure" so it could develop from within and emerge strong and independent, according to the Seattle Times.

But Chukotka never did develop. Instead, its economy collapsed and people left the remote Arctic region in droves. Over the past decade, the population fell by more than half to about 70,000. Roughly 20 percent are Eskimos, Chukchis and other Russia Natives, many of whom have ties to Alaska Natives. Abramovich, a member of Russia's new business elite, told The Wall Street Journal that he was bored with business and that he thought he could help develop Chukotka and deliver it from ruin. He has welcomed Alaska research and cultural projects, along with humanitarian aid and the development of tourism and trade.

Whenever researchers have run into snags, Abramovich has stepped in to help, said Peter Richter, assistant program manager for the Park Service's Beringia program.

Abramovich, who commutes between Moscow and Chukotka's capital, Anadyr, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Chukotkans have told Alaskans that their lives have improved. They now receive wages on time and have food, heat and hope for the future. Abramovich has reportedly spent millions of his own money setting up a foundation that airlifted food, boots and medicine to villagers and flew thousands of Chukotka children to the Black Sea and other vacation destinations.

Nancy Mendenhall, a Nome resident who coordinates aid packages to Chukotka, said the letters she gets from Chukotka are now more optimistic. People are still poor but have basic necessities, she said. "Chukotka is a place where change is now possible," said John Tichotsky, an assistant professor of economics and international trade at Alaska Pacific University.

During the Beringia conference this week, participants will discuss a variety of research and cultural projects throughout the Beringia region, from subsistence to archaeology. Park officials say they will also bring up the idea, in informal discussions, of an international park.

Richter said the Park Service is eager to hear what the Chukotkans and other Russians think about the idea.

On the Alaska side, Park Service managers said they would designate four existing federal conservation units in Western Alaska as part of the park: Bering Land Bridge Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Kobuk Valley National Park and Noatak National Preserve. It's unclear yet which lands would be designated on the Russian side, though Richter has said a Beringia park made it onto a Russian list of federal parks to be designated within the next decade.

Park or not, North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak said the new openness should help the two countries better manage important subsistence species such as whales and polar bears. Chukotka also has gold, diamonds, oil and gas and is just 38 miles across the Bering Strait. Alaska could become a staging place for economic development projects, Ahmaogak said.

Tandy Wallack, who owns Anchorage-based Circumpolar Expeditions with her husband, said her company plans weekly tours of Chukotka next summer. Last summer, with funding from the Park Service, Wallack trained Chukotkans to host tourists and to make maps of their towns for walking tours. Wallack thinks an international park would draw more tourists. Richter agreed. "Look at our parks," he said. "We're bulging with visitors. They're big economic engines."

Reporter Elizabeth Manning can be reached at or (+1) 907-257-4323.