VIEW FROM VEDOMOSTI:Roman Abramovich's Cash Brings Hope to Chukotka




The town of Anadyr in Chukotka is Russia's easternmost city. It is in the first time zone, meaning that it will be one of the first places on Earth to greet the new millennium. About a year ago, that fact prompted a reporter from The Independent to take a trip there and declare upon leaving, "Happy New Year, Chukotka. And - when it dawns - may the next century be far, far better than the last."


Roman Abramovich, a 33-year-old oligarch who sits on the board of directors of Sibneft oil conglomerate and controls most of its shares through several companies, says he can carry out that wish.


Abramovich, who is camera-shy and averse to publicity, is running for Chukotka's seat in the State Duma, far from the prying eyes of the Moscow press. It is assumed he is doing that to gain parliamentary immunity, which may become necessary if a politician opposed to the current Kremlin leadership wins the next presidential election. Abramovich is a Kremlin insider who has been demonized by the press. He may be threatened under a new regime.


But whatever the businessman's reasons for running in Chukotka, there is a certain justice in one of Russia's wealthiest people trying to win votes in one of the nation's poorest regions. One hopes Abramovich is not without his share of decency and some of the wealth will rub off on Chukotka. And the beauty of it is the place does not need much. For a big business like Sibneft, the region would be a charity project on the scale of a few Moscow orphanages.


Chukotka, with an area the size of France, has just under 44,000 registered voters. The average life expectancy is 40 to 45 years. Last winter, 10,000 reindeer (reindeer breeding is a key industry there) starved to death on Chukotka because their pastures iced over. Last August, Human Rights Commissioner Oleg Mironov wrote to the Russian government warning it that people in Chukotka might start dying as well if urgent humanitarian aid was not sent. "The locals are deprived of electricity, water and even food and medicines," Mironov wrote.


Chukotka has a nuclear power station, but it is not enough to provide for the region's needs because of the enormous distances and fierce climate. Governor Alexander Nazarov once said that his region was the first in Russia to build a wind power plant. "The wind broke it down and tore it up," Nazarov said.


Oil products are brought to Chukotka by tanker fleets preceded by icebreakers. The supplies depend heavily on the weather and on oil companies' willingness to ship their products to the remote region rather than export them. Chukotka, however, has its own confirmed oil reserves, which a recent Fuel and Energy Ministry report deems it "important" to develop but which no one can get to.


Now that Abramovich may soon represent Chukotka in the Duma, the local Anadyr paper, called Krainy Sever (Extreme North), enthuses that Sibneft is talking to some Japanese investors about working the Chukotka oil fields. The paper also reports that the oil giant wants to build a liquid gas processing plant in Anadyr.


Abramovich himself was cautious about these reported projects when he talked to a Vedomosti reporter on a plane from Anadyr to Moscow. But he has already helped solve one of the region's biggest problems - the lack of transportation between Chukotka and the "mainland," as the rest of the world is called on this peninsula.


The weather, the dearth of fuel and the lack of airlines that will serve such a godforsaken place combine to keep passengers living at airports for weeks, sometimes months. There is an added twist in Anadyr: The town is separated from the airport by a gulf, which in the fall, early winter and spring can only be crossed by helicopter. Needless to say, the helicopter service does not run smoothly.


On a recent trip to Anadyr, Abramovich brought with him Alexander Krasnenker, head of Vnukovo Airlines, a major passenger carrier. Krasnenker announced that his airline was launching a weekly flight from Moscow to Chukotka's second city, Pevek. That would bring the number of regular flights between Moscow and Chukotka to two. Even that achievement, in the eyes of many locals, might be enough to get Abramovich elected. The problem is, wages are delayed for up to a year on the peninsula. People cannot afford air tickets.


Abramovich promises to help solve that by telling the federal government "what living conditions here are like. I think that will not be hard to do: We have some influence in Moscow. I know many ministers personally, so I will probably be able to help."


If being an oligarch is good for something like that, it is nice that Russia has oligarchs. But given the fact that Abramovich is running an election campaign, that is a big if.