ABRAMOVICH’S GOLDEN HILLS IN CHUKOTKA
Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 9
By Elena Dikun
Roman Abramovich has a solid reputation as an all-powerful oligarch, a “Family” man, who used to “man the till,” servicing the financial interests of the Kremlin, while from his office at Sibneft he controlled governments, summoning high-ranking officials to his office for a dressing-down. When Abramovich announced that he was going to run for governor in Chukotka, everyone was absolutely convinced that the oil magnate was planning to increase his capital at the state’s expense. It is almost nine months since Abramovich became boss of Chukotka, but practically nothing is known about what sort of a living he’s making for himself there. Recently I spent some time with Abramovich in Anadyr.
I now know first hand what it feels like to land in Anadyr. When the plane made touched down on the runway, it shook like a truck driving over a washboard. “Thank God we missed the hole this time,” said someone behind me, crossing themselves (there really is a huge pothole, almost a meter long, right at the beginning of the runway). A young woman looked out of the window and started crying, whispering to her husband “I don’t want to go home.”
Anadyr probably looks even more squalid than it actually is after a trip to the “big country:” Peeling and cracking five-story Khrushchev-era pile-dwellings, huts and sheds where people also live. The streets are crisscrossed by sewage and heating pipes, which are not buried underground to account for the permafrost, but are laid along the roads and covered with cement blocks. There is just one set of traffic lights in the town, and even that has not worked for several years. But then, there are hardly any cars in Anadyr: Everyone walks everywhere. The winds are so strong here in winter that ropes are strung along the streets for people to hang onto as they move around. The town is encircled by a ring of refuse dumps (with the tanks, containers and crates in which fuel and food is brought from the mainland but which aren’t taken away again). Flocks of cormorants swoop above the houses in search of food; the locals call them flying dogs. In short, you couldn’t find a better set for Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” than Anadyr.
WHAT USE IS CHUKOTKA TO ABRAMOVICH?
The main question to which I was hoping to get an answer from Abramovich himself was: Why did he need Chukotka? Some in Moscow think that he went to the North “for want of anything better to do.” His oil and aluminum businesses are sorted and running themselves; he was never really taken with parliamentary work. Some think that Chukotka is like a hobby for him, a sort of internal emigration. But there are also more pragmatic theories. The governorship, for example, gives Abramovich political cover for his multitudinous business projects.
He is doing all he can to demonstrate his usefulness to the new authorities. The day before I left, one prominent Moscow politician spent some time persuading me that “Roma was seriously worried when he saw Putin manhandling his old friend Berezovsky. He was haunted by the idea that he would soon share his fate. So now he’s trying to atone for his sins in Chukotka and secure a pardon.”
When I mentioned this to Abramovich, he nodded his agreement: “An excellent theory. I’ll go with that.” And then a little later on: “Why doesn’t anyone believe that I actually find this interesting? I think I can change things here. After all, I’ve achieved something in business.”
This interest has cost Abramovich a pretty penny. The governor has already invested US$30-40 million of his own money (he has not counted exactly how much). This has mainly gone on social projects. This summer, for example, 8,000 children (practically all of them) went on holiday to the Black Sea coast and central Russia. In addition to this, Chukotka’s budget has been swelled by Abramovich’s income tax, which totaled no less than US$35 million.
Yet in conversation with the man, I gained the impression that he sees Chukotka more as a natural philosopher views an unexplored subject. The governor deliberately distances himself and abstracts himself from the region entrusted to him. For example, his aides suggested that when addressing the local deputies he should say ‘Fellow countrymen’. The governor recalls: “I laughed long and hard at that. They’re not my countrymen! Just ‘Dear deputies.'” He never says anything like “We in Chukotka…” And if one of his staff accidentally says something of the sort he is sent home for a while, “because that’s a sure sign the guy’s beginning to lose it”.
Governor Abramovich’s team is mainly made up of people who worked with him in Sibneft. There are now 80 people on his staff, from Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Omsk and St. Petersburg. The average age of the team is 33; Abramovich himself is 35. All these people have already achieved a great deal in their lives: They have managed large workforces, launched grandiose business projects, earned huge amounts of money. So why have they dropped everything and flocked to Chukotka?
Everyone seems to have their own reason. For example, the deputy governor, 31-year-old Andrei Gorodilov (who was first vice president of Sibneft) is the son of a distinguished oil man from the north, who built Noyabrsk. Now he wants to emulate his father and get his name on the map too. Some were concerned that if they refused Abramovich now they would get a black mark and be left behind; others wanted to test their ability to survive in extreme conditions; while for others still it was some sort of drive, an “experiment.”
But there is also something in common that can be detected in what everyone says: The words “team” and “Captain Roma”. The general mood was captured best of all by Stanislav Tsygankov, who previously was vice president of Guta-Bank and acting finance minister for Moscow Oblast, and who came to Chukotka three months ago to head the finance department. “Roman is a superb manager, he infects you with his ideas and energy. I have always dreamt of joining his team, which is regarded as one of the strongest and friendliest. But when I saw Anadyr, and spent the night in a local hotel, my first thought was to turn straight around and fly home. The only thing that kept me here was seeing how hard the guys were working, and I wanted to try it too. At 35 I was already half asleep in Moscow; I knew what would happen tomorrow and the day after tomorrow; there was not going to be any quantum leap. But Chukotka is an excellent place for self-fulfillment. It’s great here, and not just in the sense that the fishing is good. On top of that, as far as the Anadyr project is concerned, if I’m worth X on the market now, afterwards I’ll be worth XXL.”
Abramovich’s team–and the man himself–work in shifts in Chukotka: Usually two or three weeks in Anadyr and then the same period at home. “If you fly more often than that, your body can’t cope with the eight-hour flights and nine-hour time difference. If you stay longer, your brain starts to dry up,” explains Andrei Gorodilov. The working day starts at 9 am and goes on into the early hours of the morning: When it’s bedtime in Chukotka, Moscow wakes up, and they have to get on the telephone and do their business. They do not have days off, because there is nothing to do in Anadyr apart from work.
Nobody from Abramovich’s young team plans to tie their fate to Chukotka. They refer to themselves as “seasonal workers” and make no bones about the fact that their main aim is to get things straightened out here in a year or two so that it will then be possible to visit Anadyr less frequently. “There was total chaos here before, but we want to set up some sort of frame of reference, and set clear and predictable rules of play,” says the governor’s adviser Dmitry Kryuchkov, a 30-year-old who handled regional projects in Sibneft and is now responsible for supplies in Chukotka.
From the outside it looks as though these top managers are banging in nails and tightening screws. But the tasks they have to solve here may be even trickier than those in their old jobs. For example, where do you buy in food supplies for Chukotka? It transpires that the cheapest option is California, while it is best to buy potatoes, for example, from Washington state and Ohio–they definitely won’t rot in the time it takes to transport them. Of course, the transportation has to be arranged very quickly. But ships flying foreign flags cannot enter the port at Chukotka, which is in a border zone. Eventually, after lengthy exhortations, the border guards agreed to make concessions, but demanded that the authorities submitted a list of the foreign ships and their scheduled arrival in port six months in advance. How can that be done if the ships have not yet been chartered?
Then there was another story which emerged recently. They decided to rebuild Chukotka’s boiler houses. They bought the boilers in Omsk and had them shipped to Vladivostok with a view to bringing them on by rail. But then as luck would have it, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il turned up on his official visit, and all rail movements were halted until he had made his round trip. Then a bridge collapsed in Vladivostok, and by the time they repaired it the boilers had burst. Now the whole process has to begin again.
And how do you solve this sort of equation when you’re only dealing with unknowns? On the border with Magadan Oblast lies the village of Omalon. Fuel deliveries to this village cost US$1 million, which is 1 percent of the whole budget for Chukotka okrug. But it is not even a question of the money, but of how physically to get the fuel there. There is only one way–by river; but the river is shallow and that’s where the trouble starts. Usually two barges set out on the journey–one carrying the fuel and one empty one. When the laden vessel runs aground, the fuel is pumped across to the empty barge; the next time it happens the operation is reversed. But in any case, nobody can guarantee that the convoy will ever reach its destination.
THE CHUKOTKA BUSINESS PROJECT
Chukotka has a little bit of everything: Tin, mercury, gold, oil. But the problem is how to dig them out of the frozen earth, and whether it is worth the candle. Gold prospecting in Chukotka became unprofitable long ago; the gold mines have been abandoned. A minimum of US$250 million is required to explore the Maiskoe and Kupol fields, which have not been fully prospected. Preparing the business plan alone will take two or three years. This is a long-term project, and the governor does not intend to tackle it now. In early June Sibneft began exploratory oil drilling on the Molchalivy promontory. The results should be in by the end of the year, which will tell them whether the work is worth pursuing or whether it should be closed down. “But even if we are lucky and find oil, it will not flow freely for at least fifty years,” Abramovich claims.
For now the governor is contemplating developing extreme and ethnographic tourism. Another extravagant plan is to derive an income from the military bases abandoned in Chukotka–of which there are many. It is planned to arrange special tours from Alaska for pilots who are curious to see how the former Soviet Union defended itself against the United States.
The main projects Abramovich plans to implement include cutting the number of pensioners in Chukotka. The new boss intends to ship old people to the “mainland” to reduce the number of spongers who are a burden on the budget. The finance ministry calculates that for the region to finance itself, the optimum number of people living in Chukotka would be 40-45,000, including the 17,000 native inhabitants. (Today the population stands at 72,000.) Abramovich plans to resettle 1,000 people by the end of this year (300 apartments have been purchased in Samara, Leningrad Oblast), and another 5,000 next year.
On the other hand, when it comes down to it, the local inhabitants, who are forever complaining about their lot, don’t want to leave. They have already put down roots in the tundra, and they don’t know what awaits them in the “big country.” Some are trying to gain financially from the governor’s proposal. For example, they might move to the Russian provinces, quickly sell off the apartment assigned to them there, and return to Chukotka, asking to be taken back. Following several such cases, the authorities decided to sign a contract with the emigrants outlining their mutual responsibilities.
Abramovich has a vision of what Chukotka should be like in the future: The administrative town of Anadyr, where most people would work from spring to autumn, and in winter, when the temperatures reach 40-60 degrees below zero and life comes to a standstill, they would leave for the mainland, with national settlements for the native inhabitants.
PLANS FOR A GARDEN CITY
When Abramovich came to power in Chukotka, the first thing he did was settle the arrears in wage payments. Prior to this public sector workers had not been paid for three months, workers in the housing and communal services sector for three years, while reindeer-breeders had completely forgotten what money looks like. They had long been working on the basis of natural barter: Meat and hide in exchange for salt and matches.
They day after the wages were paid out, hardly anyone came to work–they had all gone on a drinking binge. They drank so heavily that twelve people died, including a 9-year-old girl who had been celebrating with her parents. When they sobered up, many people fired off letters of complaint to the local executive, demanding damages for not having been paid any money for so long.
The main pastime for local residents is the Anadyr estuary, which surrounds the town on all sides. The people of Anadyr can sit for hours on the benches high up on the bank, and watch the water, forgetting the cares of the world. When Sibneft opened a filling station in the town, they hired several Chukchi to work there. They worked for a couple of days, then on the third day went off at midday without saying a word to anyone. It later turned out that they’d gone to look at the water. Since the new governor arrived, a lot of new faces have appeared in the town, especially builders. Abramovich intends to do up the town properly–not an easy task. Everything from nails to cranes has to be brought in from the mainland, on top of which delivery of supplies alone has taken a whole season. Building can only begin next year. But apartment blocks have already been plastered by the trained climbers, brought in from Moscow, who repaired the Ostankino TV tower after last year’s fire. They are now painting the walls with a special rubber-based paint and facing them with plastic frost-proof tiles.
In September blasting begins on Lenin Square, the town’s central square; the buildings of the local executive committee and the house of culture will come down, although the monument to Lenin himself will remain as a historical landmark.
By the end of the year there will be two modern hotels in the town (one is being built by Turks, the other by Canadians), and there is also planned to be an indoor skating rink, a fitness club and a twenty-four-hour supermarket. A group of specialists from Iceland is soon expected in Anadyr, whose job will be to assess whether the geothermal sources nearby can be used to heat the town. Skilled workers from Yugoslavia are expected around the same time to bring the runway at Anadyr airport up to scratch: They have become past masters at repairing runways after the bombings.
Governor Abramovich says that his team is trying to solve all the local problems on their own. They have asked Moscow for help a couple of times, but have just been left with a bitter taste in their mouths. The officials in their big offices heard out the requests and then clearly hinted: “Pledge us some Sibneft shares first, then we can talk.”
Of Moscow’s magnates, nobody apart from Abramovich wants to invest anything in Chukotka. Only his friend Aleksandr Mamut opened a branch of MDM Bank. The local area made a strong impression on Mamut, who has been to visit Abramovich a few times. He admitted that if he lived here his main aim in life would be to get a ticket to the mainland at any price. He would even be prepared to kill for it.
So when does the newly arrived oligarch-governor intend to buy his ticket home and return to the high life? Abramovich says he is not planning to escape before his first term of office comes to an end. He has not yet thought about a second term. But if he leaves Chukotka, he will groom somebody to take his place. It looks as though Abramovich the Viking has marked out his territory, and that the entrance is barred to unauthorized persons.
Elena Dikun is a political columnist with Obshchaya Gazeta.