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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

North Short on Food, Fuel and Hope

Supplies of food and fuel are running out in remote northern regions across Russia, and there is talk of evacuating thousands of people from their homes unless something is done soon.

Every year the federal government runs an operation called Northern Delivery, sending money to regions stretching from Murmansk to Khabarovsk for the food and fuel they need to make it through the harsh winter. This year, only half the allocated funds have been sent.

The worrying situation led the State Duma, parliament's lower house, to hold hearings this week on the crisis in Russia's arctic north and appeal to the government to release more money for the deliveries.

For some places it may be too late. Many towns along the northern coast are best supplied by ship, but a lack of financing prevented the delivery of goods in the summer and now the waterways are freezing over.

"We were living on the edge, half starving. But this year, it's getting worse," Boris Misnik, chairman of the Duma's committee on the north and a resident of Kola Peninsula, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

Russia's financial crisis, combined with natural disasters such as the floods in Yakutia and the fires on Sakhalin Island, pushed the situation over the edge, Misnik said.

Some regions have received only about a third of the food and fuel they got in 1997, said Gumer Gemerov, the official with the Regional Affairs Ministry who is in charge of the shipment program.

He said conditions are the worst in remote areas of the Chukotka, Yakutia and Koryak regions, where temperatures in the winter can plunge to minus 50 degrees Celsius.

In Yakutia, the government has announced strict rationing of diesel, gas and coal. There and in Chukotka, officials are considering evacuating some villages and towns.

Residents of these regions have been burying the Regional Affairs Ministry and the Duma committee on the north under letters and telegrams calling for emergency help, Gemerov said.

"We received no fuel, there is no heat or food, we are freezing," read a letter from 51 residents of Leningradsky, a village of 900 people in Chukotka where they say salaries have not been paid since 1995. "The administration wants to force us to move away without paying any compensations."

Because of the shortages, the decision has been made to move people out of Leningradsky, said Alexander Cherkasov, a police officer in Mys Shmidta, a nearby town on the Chukchi Sea in Russia's far northeast corner.

"They are talking about evacuating people from here, too," he said about his town of 5,000, where he said the electricity is switched off during the day and schools are not heated.

Mys Shmidta has received no shipments by sea this year, so everything has had to be delivered by cargo plane, which is 10 times more expensive.

Ice breakers capable of delivering goods along Russia's arctic edge have not left Murmansk because the Northern Fleet had no money to pay for the nuclear fuel, said Larisa Panomaryova, an official with the Regional Affairs Ministry.

"There are rivers, like the Nizhnyaya Tunguzka, where navigation lasts only eight days," Panomaryova said. Many villages and company towns along such northern waterways have missed on deliveries and now they are stuck because the waters already are blocked by ice, she said.

Without federal government money, they are unable to sign contracts with the icebreakers for winter deliveries, Panomaryova said, "and the icebreaking fleet doesn't work on credit."

The Duma committee on the North believes nearly 1.2 million people may have to be evacuated this year, said Albion Brechalov, spokesman for the committee. But it is not clear how the evacuations could be carried out or who would pay for them.

Committee chairman Misnik said he is opposed to evacuations, saying they would not solve the fundamental problems.

Areas along the arctic coast may be having the most trouble, but other regions also are suffering. The Northern Delivery operation covers two-thirds of Russian territory, where 12 million people reside.

The program, part of the federal budget, includes money for transportation and loans to regions to buy food and fuel for the winter. This year, by the end of September, only 53 percent of money materialized.

On Sept. 26, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's government issued a decree directing the Finance Ministry to pay out the remaining 1.8 billion rubles.

"We have not seen a single kopek since mid-August," Gemerov of the Regional Affairs Ministry said. "This winter, it is going to be tough to survive."

The North is in a tighter grip of perpetual crisis than the rest of Russia. Every fifth adult is unemployed, there are twice as many children with chronic diseases, and workers have been fleeing the region, leaving behind a large population of pensioners.

In July, the Russian government launched a program to help northerners move to central regions, but none of the promised money has come through, the Duma committee on the North said.

But one official at the Regional Affairs Ministry, which absorbed the State Committee on Northern Problems during the latest governmental reshuffle, was stoic in the face of the crisis.

"We will resolve this situation in a strictly Russian way: making problems for ourselves and then heroically solving them," Alexander Antonov said.