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Russia Slowly Abandoning Siberia, Other Northern Regions

by Sergei Blagov

3-4 million to leave in next 20 years
(IPS) MOSCOW -- It is not summer in north-eastern Siberia as most people know summer to be. The spring sunshine brought temperatures up to minus 40 centigrade at night, though they could still fall to minus 60.

This is the coldest place in the northern hemisphere, and only parts of the Antarctica ever get colder. It is hardly surprising that so many Russians are beginning to move out; what is surprising is that they stayed so long.

People have been living through winters when electricity and heating systems have begun to collapse. Now instead of taking heating to the north, the Russian government is working out plans to move the people south.

About 60 percent of heating and electricity infrastructure in the north is worn out. "In the next few years the situation is going to become critical," Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told a meeting of local officials in Yakutsk in eastern Siberia last week.

Kasyanov promised more government support to the northern regions and to people living under extreme conditions. The meeting considered a range of measures from direct subsidies to relocation.

The government has often promised more support to people in the north, in Siberia, and the Far East. The economic reforms and the decline of state-run services have hit these people hardest.

The State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, passed a bill last month to raise pensions in the northern territories. Pension levels earlier had thrown people in these regions into poverty, Valentina Pivnenko, head of the Duma committee on the North and Far East, said in parliament.

Forty of Russia's 89 regions are considered "northern territories." Historically, these were areas for exile. "All -- the prisoners and their guardians -- are keen to get out of that living hell," playwright Anton Chekhov wrote a century ago.

Not much has changed since, except that residents are free to leave. And more and more are beginning to do so. More than a million people have left these regions since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Going by present trends, the population of Siberia and the far north is set to decline by a third over the next 20 years. The current population is about 11 million.

But the continuing presence of a sizeable population in the northern areas presents a serious problem, says Andrei Markov, task manager of the Northern Restructuring Project backed by the World Bank. The project aims to make life better for people in the north, or to move them.

"Many people came north during the Soviet days, attracted by higher wages and huge subsidies," Markov told IPS. "Now the Russian government no longer sees any economic sense in these subsidies to sustain the north, and is seriously looking for ways to solve the problem."

The ministry of economic development and trade announced plans in May to relocate more than half a million people, but gave no concrete timetable. Markov says 800,000 people have registered for relocation, but are staying on due to lack of government support, and their own insufficient funds.

Many of today's problems have arisen from the central heating system installed during Soviet days. These systems, which pump massive amounts of hot water into buildings, are wasteful, and expensive to maintain.

During the Soviet era, the state heavily subsidized upkeep of these systems, but now money is running out. The central heating systems in the north are seven to eight times more expensive to maintain than in Moscow, says Markov.

The World Bank is supporting pilot projects in Vorkuta in northern Russia, in Norilsk in western Siberia, and in Magadan in the Far East to relocate 25,000 people at a cost of 3,000 dollars per person. The "migration subsidy" is intended to help migrants buy homes in small townships in central Russia.

Relocation plans do not include northern indigenous ethnic groups, officially called the 'numerically small peoples.' "The government has never supported these groups enough," Dmitry Founk, head of the Siberia and Far North department at the Moscow-based Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology told IPS. "Government subsidies meant to support these ethnic groups have been misused."

Proposals were made earlier to set up an Arctic Bank of Reconstruction and Development. But there has been little movement in that direction.

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Albion Monitor July 24, 2003 (

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