Search Friday September 5, 2003

Bears, volcanoes, oil: Russia's remote east
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Thursday, August 28, 2003

HONG KONG: It's a hazardous business being governor of a province in Russia's east. Last week the governor of Sakhalin, Igor Farkhutdinov, was killed when his helicopter went down in neighboring Kamchatka. Last year the governor of Krasnoyarsk in eastern Siberia, the former presidential contender Aleksandr Lebed, met a similar fate. This year the governor of Magadan in the extreme northeast was assassinated over a fishery rights dispute. A year ago the governor of Kamchatka barely survived a road accident.

Otherwise, however, things in the region looks as though they are picking up. The general improvement of conditions in Russia has taken a long time to reach the remote east but President Vladimir Putin's government has awakened to the economic potential and strategic importance of regions that suffered especially severely from the collapse of the Soviet system.

Russia's far east experienced depopulation as well as economic decline, opening the gate for opportunistic Chinese merchants and migrants. Putin himself has noted the need to reverse the drain of permanent Russian settlers from the far east and their replacement, if at all, by migrants from elsewhere. But that can only happen as the region's economy picks up. That is just beginning.

Sakhalin has been a focus of foreign interest for some years but Farkhutdinov was a major factor in turning interest into concrete results, as well as altering attitudes to the Russian far east. He was instrumental in attracting the oil majors, including Shell and Exxon Mobil, to invest in Sakhalin's huge but remote oil and gas reserves. He was also forthright in calling on the central government to make Russia more attractive to foreign investment.

Farkhutdinov constantly emphasized the importance of good ties with the United States. Energy for the United States from Russia's east was closer than that from Middle East suppliers such as Saudi Arabia. Russia was also a more stable supplier. He had a vision of the Russian east acting like Australia, a thinly populated but advanced country that could be a stable commodity supplier and partner for Japan, China and the United States.

Farkhutdinov died on a mission to increase cooperation in the region. He was on his way from Kamchatka's capital, Petropavlovsk, a port city and naval base that lies on a magnificent volcano-fringed bay, to Severo-Kurilsk, one of the formerly Japanese islands that lie off the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

I flew part of this route last year in a similar Russian Mi-8 helicopter, the noisy but sturdy machine that is the workhorse throughout the Russian far east, where roads are few and topography, climate and sparse population make use of light aircraft inappropriate. The 20-passenger helicopters are reliable and crewed by experienced former military pilots. But the weather can be atrocious. Helicopters can be grounded for days at a time because of low cloud and the need for pilots to negotiate their way around, rather than over, high mountains.

The journey south from Petropavlovsk takes one within sight of another sign of the new Russia's progress and cooperation - a geo-thermal power station built with loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The route toward Severo-Kurilsk then passes between two extinct volcanoes before skirting the site of a foreign mining investment, and on across a national park, home to hot springs, bears and fishing lodges that are attracting increasing, if still small, numbers of hardy but well-heeled tourists. Somewhere along the route Farkhutinov and his party lost their lives, most likely due to an abrupt change in the weather conditions.

His death could slow the revival of the region, but it seems unlikely to stop it. Russia's own recovery apart, events since Sept. 11, 2001, have made China and Japan as well as the United States conscious of the attractions of Russian energy and the need to put history and territorial claims into the background, at least for now. And despite everything, increasing numbers of tourists seem set to brave the Mi-8 machines to experience Kamchatka's unique combination of natural attractions - active volcanoes, unsurpassed fishing, bear and reindeer hunting, skiing - and almost total absence of people.