Chukotka's Romance With Roman

Tavaivaam, Far East Ч To many Russians, Roman Abramovich is a billionaire "oligarch" and an influential insider in the courts of both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.

The 34-year-old Abramovich controls Sibneft, a major oil producer, through subsidiary companies. He is co-founder of Russian Aluminum, the world's second largest aluminum producer, and owns 49 percent of television network ORT. His personal fortune is estimated at between $1.4 and $2 billion.

Here in Tavaivaam, however, the locals call Abramovich "governor." To his native Chukchi constituents in the bankrupt Chukotka autonomous district, across the Bering Strait from Alaska, the oligarch looks more like a savior, a provider of humanitarian aid in the form of flour, sugar, oil, fish hooks and nets.

Abramovich is received with festive concerts everywhere he goes. He makes promises to the people, and even delivers on them. This shocks many people after a long decade of lies and inaction from local and federal officials.

The non-native population Ч about two-thirds of the district's 70,000 people Ч has also benefitted from Abramovich's largesse. Wage arrears have been paid, and a resettlement program is under way, removing retirees to the "mainland." Schoolchildren have been sent to summer camps in the south.

Strange as it sounds, this is all true.

Talk of political intrigues and business scandals involving Abramovich only irritates the residents of Chukotka. They don't care what people in Moscow say about their governor, elected last December. Here, 6,200 kilometers from the Kremlin, people see things a little differently. You could even say that voters gave themselves a gift in Abramovich, and now they don't plan to look that gift horse in the mouth.

Tavaivaam is located on the Bay of Anadyr, at the mouth of the Anadyr River. It is a run-down village like many others inhabited by the region's native people, the Chukchi. On one side lie tundra and lifeless hills, on the other the lights of Anadyr, the regional capital.

The 400-odd residents of Tavaivaam are former reindeer breeders and fishermen. They do not live in yarangy Ч portable huts Ч as their ancestors did, but in concrete three-story tenements and dilapidated shacks, hastily thrown together from warped timber and plywood. At times it can be hard to distinguish actual dwellings from rotted, abandoned barns, or stacks of firewood from trash heaps. Feral dogs roam confidently through the ruins.

Not long ago tragedy struck the village. A pack of hungry dogs attacked a woman who was carrying meat home from the store. She was torn apart by the dogs, who were eventually trapped and put to sleep by local veterinarians.

During the Soviet era this village was part of a prosperous state-run farm with a then-typical communist name: "In the Name of the XXII Party Congress." Locals now look back on those times with nostalgia.

Valentina Rintuvi, 51, who works in a local club, has lived here her entire life. She said that the countryside here was once full of reindeer, some 30,000 altogether. The fishermens' co-op filled the local markets with its catch.

The end of "the good old days" of socialism coincided with the dawn of perestroika, when the generous subsidies from Moscow dried up. Local agriculture collapsed for good in the mid-1990s when the Kremlin began to forget about the existence of the country's Far North. There was only enough money to feed the local bureaucrats and police.

The last reindeer were butchered six years ago. Local fishing declined from a thriving enterprise into a means of survival. The Chukchi have few full-time jobs. Instead, they are plagued with drunkenness, poverty, tuberculosis, syphilis and even AIDS. In place of wages they receive humanitarian aid.

In the mornings young people in search of food, money or liquor gather around the local two-story club, where some semblance of social life still goes on. The club's library still functions, and "cultural workers" ready the auditorium for performances of the famous shaman folk ensemble, Ergyron. One senses the nearness of Anadyr, from which the village receives electricity, heat, and most everything else.

In more far-flung villages, where there is no electricity, heating fuel or entertainment, the Chukchi and other native peoples were long ago forced to convert their homes into barns. They slaughter reindeer in their apartments, light campfires, and salt fish in huge barrels.

Tavaivaam, in short, is far from the worst place in Chukotka. There is even work once in a while. Rintuvi, for instance, sews costumes for the performers of the Ergyron ensemble and earns a very good wage by local standards: $120 a month.

I asked her how she survives on her salary, given that the prices in the grocery store across from the club are exorbitant Ч three or four times higher than in Moscow. A kilogram of potatoes, for example, costs $2, a kilogram of apples no less than $5, a kilogram of sausage or cheese well over $8. The only relative bargain here is vodka. A suspect half-liter bottle costs $3, a bottle of Gzhelka from Moscow runs to $4.

"You can't survive on your wages alone, of course," Rintuvi said. There's only one way to manage Ч strict penny-pinching. Money goes for pasta, bread, salt, matches and fishing supplies, for fishing is the main food source for the native population.

Irina Rychim, 29, a Chukchi woman who returned home after graduating from St. Petersburg University, is one of the lucky ones like Rintuvi. She has a job. She was taken on as the club's librarian, but earns just $50 a month. She also relies on fishing and humanitarian aid to survive.

But there is still hope, Rychim said, and that hope has a name: Roman Abramovich, elected as governor of the Chukotka autonomous district last December. Before that, the famous oligarch served as the Chukchi representative in the State Duma.

Campaign posters of Abramovich left over from last December still hang on the walls of offices and beauty parlors, in run-down snack bars and restaurants. Carefully cut-out pictures of the Chukotka governor have been placed in the windows of buses and trucks, just like Stalin's portrait many years ago.

The face on these portraits is that of a weary 34-year-old, bashful and uncertain, looking into the camera lens. His brown eyes are sad, full of understanding and sorrow. He sports the sort of three-day beard that was in fashion a few years ago. The candidate is always in a lightweight democratic sweater. Never a tie. You get the impression that the photographer caught him unawares, as though Abramovich were unaccustomed to being in the public eye.

You don't hear the questions that baffle observers elsewhere. What does Abramovich need with Chukotka? Why is one of Russia's richest businessmen spending millions of dollars from his own pocket on humanitarian aid, and tens of millions from the Sibneft and Russian Aluminum coffers on social programs?

Moscow politicians and journalists have been puzzling over these questions ever since Abramovich gave up his seat in the State Duma Ч and the immunity from prosecution that came with it Ч to run for governor last year. Everyone has their own explanation. Communist Vasily Starodubtsev, governor of the Tula region, is convinced that Abramovich has plans no less audacious than to link Chukotka with Alaska, just over 50 kilometers away across the Bering Strait.

Some accept the version offered by Abramovich's partners, according to which the billionaire who spent his childhood in stark poverty has now decided to give something back to society. He became fond of the people in Chukotka and has resolved to help relieve their suffering.

According to Mikhail Kruglov, a journalist at Novaya Gazeta, a weekly newspaper that regularly publishes articles hostile to Abramovich, the oligarch simply gave up his buddy Boris Berezovsky to the government, and in exchange was allowed to serve his own time in a Siberian governor's office, rather than in a Siberian prison camp.

Others are convinced that the pragmatic Abramovich knows that Chukotka contains no mean reserves of gold, natural gas, petroleum and fish. All this now belongs to him. "In Russia, money is the key to power," said State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov. "For Abramovich, the governorship is all part of his business. The Kremlin in this situation can neither help nor hinder him."

Still others talk of a future public-relations coup, when Abramovich will show all of Russia and the world how to drag a decimated, bankrupt region back from the brink. This view is shared by Oleg Sysuyev, former deputy prime minister of Russia and current vice chairman of Alfa Bank. "Abramovich has accomplished a lot in his life, he is rich, and this can't be bad for Chukotka," he said. "All the talk about Abramovich looting Chukotka is laughable. Abramovich has enough money already, and Chukotka is far from wealthy. He probably got bored in the Duma and decided to try something new."

One thing is common to most observers of Abramovich outside Chukotka: a deep suspicion of the young oligarch's altruism.

The governor himself behaves something like the Queen of Britain: he is involved in charitable work and gives no interviews, to Russian journalists at any rate. Abramovich's assistant Sergei Kapkov handles all contact with the press. He gives studied slippery answers to all of his guests' questions, including the central quandary: What does Abramovich want in Chukotka?

"He has achieved a great deal in his life, he has become a wealthy and influential person in Russia," Kapkov said. "For him, Chukotka is an interesting new project, the fulfillment of his personal ambitions."

Governor Abramovich doesn't run his region like other governors do. Two or three times a month he flies to Chukotka in his private plane and gives orders to the members of his administrative team. He used to fly out each evening to spend the night across the Bering Strait in Anchorage, Alaska. Now the billionaire has erected a modest residence in Anadyr Ч a two-story wooden Canadian-built cottage with its own heating system to keep the governor warm during the long, brutal winter. Abramovich's team assures visiting journalists that soon, all residents of Chukotka will live in such relative luxury.

Nearly 100 managers, most of them transferred here from Sibneft, work in Anadyr on a permanent basis. They control daily operations in the region and try to bring local bureaucrats up to speed. Not all of the old guard fit into the new power structure, and this has led to some disgruntlement.

Now the all-important delivery of goods Ч everything from foodstuffs to fuel Ч to Chukotka during the summer months, when the region's waters are navigable, will be handled by the new team. According to local journalists, Abramovich's people have taken control over the regional budget Ч all the money coming in from Moscow, and all expenditures.

Earlier this summer, Abramovich declared Chukotka bankrupt, a symbolic slap in the face to former Governor Alexander Nazarov. True, Abramovich sent Nazarov as his representative to the Federation Council, where he also runs the Chukchi organization of the Yedinstvo party. News of the region's bankruptcy did not disturb Nazarov, who is convinced that a bright future lies in store for Chukotka, and that his 10-year tour of duty paved the way for the peninsula's rebirth. Chukotka's total debt to commercial banks is equal to its yearly budget, some $65 million.

Abramovich made good on his first promises as governor: He saved his electorate from starving and freezing last winter. He heaped humanitarian aid on the native population and brought in tankers filled with heating fuel.

The governor now has plans of Napoleonic proportions. After reining in spending, he decided to create state-owned companies and conduct the yearly delivery of goods to Chukotka independently of the federal government. His managers also took control of the peninsula's lucrative trade in alcohol. This monopoly on food and drink and almost everything else means that Abramovich will now decide what meat, vodka, fruit and rice will be shipped in, and how much it will cost on the shelves. You could say that the oligarch has brought a little socialism back to Chukotka.

Kapkov, the governor's assistant, said that these steps were necessary in order to bring down the inflated cost of nearly everything in Chukotka. Abramovich will save money by resettling pensioners and the unemployed on the mainland. Under his plan, the local population, long in decline anyway, will be halved.

"It costs the state $6,000 a year to sustain one person in a remote settlement," Kapkov said. "A family of three costs us $18,000. Fiscally it is more sound to remove these people from the permafrost and buy them apartments somewhere in the south of Russia."

But that's not all. Abramovich pledges to help the Chukchi and other native peoples to revive reindeer husbandry. In order to pull this off, and to combat the chronic problem of alcoholism among the native population, the governor also plans to introduce a dry law in the tundra, as the state of Alaska has already done. Until then, he will continue to provide humanitarian aid.

Abramovich also has more esoteric plans. He wants to open a movie theater in Anadyr with a Dolby sound system, as well as an entertainment center with bowling lanes and a swimming pool. He will encourage his electorate to get involved in sports.

For now, Abramovich is spending his own money Ч millions of dollars Ч in Chukotka, along with tens of millions from his oil company, Sibneft. Only the oligarch himself knows how, or if, he will repay these millions to Sibneft. Some members of his entourage believe that the investment is irrecoverable. Chukotka has a small gold supply, no one has found oil there yet although exploration continues, and the valuable fish catch is loaded straight from the seiners to ships bound for Japan. The region survives solely on subsidies.

On the other hand, Abramovich's companies Sibneft and Noyabrskneftegaz are already up and running in Chukotka, and MDM Bank Ч which is friendly to the governor Ч has opened a branch here.

But Abramovich's business plans don't worry the peninsula's inhabitants. They're just glad he's here. They're even ready to forgive former Governor Nazarov all his sins simply because he finally packed up and left, opening the door for a billionaire.