Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chukotka Governor Has Big Shoes to Fill

ReutersChukotka Governor Roman Kopin
ANADYR — Roman Kopin has a hard act to follow.

The governor of Chukotka inherited a population in love with his predecessor, billionaire Roman Abramovich, after more than seven years of spending that dragged Russia’s most isolated region from the brink of ruin.

One year into the job, Kopin must now shield the 50,000 residents of the country’s extreme northeast from the economic crisis. He also aims to help a region revived by handouts generate more income from its own natural resources.

“The crisis might have forced us to correct our plans slightly, but our momentum hasn’t stopped,” Kopin said in a recent interview. “There’s still a very high level of belief in the regional government among the local population.”

Kopin, 35, governs an area bigger than Texas. His office in the regional capital, Anadyr, overlooks a port navigable only in summer, when enough coal must be unloaded to keep the population warm throughout winters that see temperatures plunge more than 40 degrees Celsius below zero.

“Roman Arkadievich invested about $2.5 billion in Chukotka,” Kopin said, referring to Abramovich by his name and patronymic.

“This is a serious level of investment in the region’s growth,” he said.

“The citizens of Chukotka were naturally concerned when there was a handover of power.”

But there have been no radical policy changes, and investment in Chukotka this year is estimated to reach about 13 billion rubles ($424.3 million). The government will supply only 2.5 billion rubles and private companies the rest.

“I’m very proud that part of Roman Arkadievich’s team continues to work in the current government,” Kopin said.

Kopin — who, like his predecessor, prefers blue jeans to business suits on his frequent helicopter rides over the tundra — was part of that team. Though born 6,000 kilometers away in Kostroma, he is no stranger to Chukotka.

He was deputy to Abramovich, having earlier run two districts within the region. Before that, at age 25, he advised Abramovich’s predecessor as governor, Alexander Nazarov.

“My first task is to preserve the achievements of the last eight years, despite the current economic difficulties,” he said.

“We must also create the conditions for more growth.”

Mining, already Chukotka’s top revenue earner, will be key. The huge Kupol gold mine will raise the sector’s contribution to the regional economy to 37 percent this year from 22 percent.

Canadian miner Kinross Gold, which owns 75 percent of Kupol, paid over 1 billion rubles ($32.2 million) in taxes to the local government in the first quarter alone.

Kinross is unusual among foreign investors for holding a majority share in a large mineral deposit. Breaking down barriers to investment, said Kopin, was a major achievement of Abramovich’s reign.

“The investment climate here, perhaps, is a little bit different, because we understand that it’s very difficult to work in Chukotka,” he said.

“We are trying to minimize the level of bureaucracy.”

Construction is the biggest casualty of the financial crisis in Chukotka. Its share of the regional economy is forecast to drop to 1.8 percent this year from 9.9 percent in 2008.

“We’re now trying to balance this with growth in other developing sectors,” said Kopin, a graduate in state and municipal governance.

“Nobody has been fired. Nobody has any wage arrears.

“We have frozen new hires within the government in order not to increase our expenditure. We have 100 percent preserved our expenditure on education, health and other social programs,” Kopin said.

These programs apply both to Russian migrants, which make up 51.8 percent of the population, and the indigenous Chukchi, which account for 23 percent.

“The color of your skin, whether or not you are indigenous, does not matter here. The living conditions have helped everyone unite in order to overcome the hardships,” Kopin said.

The preservation of traditional ways of life is a priority for Kopin’s government. What began as a social program has brought economic benefits.

A six-year ban on commercial reindeer hunting ended in 2007, having restored numbers to 200,000 from only 90,000 at the end of the 1990s, and reindeer has taken the place of imported pork and beef to the extent that over 25 percent of Chukotka’s meat is obtained locally.

“This gives indigenous people the opportunity to enter the economic sphere,” Kopin said. “It allows the region to provide for its own food security.”