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Analysis From Washington: Chukchi Vote Divides More than Alaska

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 27 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - The results of last Sunday's gubernatorial election in Russia's Chukotka region has divided opinion in the neighboring American state of Alaska, according to press reports.

But these divisions about an election in that distant Russian region serve to call attention to an increasingly important divide within Western societies about what to support and what to oppose in the post-communist states.

With regard to the Chukchi election, Alaskan businessmen interested in investing there said they were pleased with the victory of President Boris Yeltsin's appointee Aleksandr Nazarov, who exploited the powers of incumbency and won 62 percent of the vote against four opponents.

The Alaskan businessmen gave as their reasons Nazarov's tight control over the region, his commitment to economic growth, and his investments in infrastructure and extraction industries.

As one Alaskan business leader put it, Nazarov's success at the ballot box will enhance his ability to implement the needed economic reforms.

But on the other hand, other Alaskans, those interested in studying the ecology of the region, with long-standing historical ties to it, or who want to promote humanitarian exchanges with the Chukchi, were unhappy that Nazarov will now remain in office.

Strikingly, their reasons for opposing Nazarov mirrored those of his supporters: Nazarov's tight control over the region, his flagrant use of special permits to restrict access to the region, and his commitment to economic growth even at the cost of human values.

As one Alaskan interested in developing a park on both sides of the Bering Straights put it, Nazarov's triumph at the polls guarantees "more of the same" in the future.

Because of this, many native Alaskans had backed one of Nazarov's opponents, Vladimir Etlyn, a Chukchi scientist who has specialized in the unhappy fate of his aboriginal ethnic community and a man committed to opening up the region to the world.

Between 1990 and 1993, for example, the average life expectancy of Chukchi males dropped by five years, and now stands at no more than 50 years, a level significantly lower than for other groups in the Russian population.

Not all of this trend, of course, can be blamed on Nazarov and his policies. Much of it reflects the collapse of Moscow subsidies to this distant region. But Nazarov's capitalist boosterism has certainly not helped.

The tension between economic development and the provision of social support for the less fortunate exists in every society at all times, but it is especially intense in post-communist countries where the old state welfare system has collapsed but the new economy has not yet taken off.

But this tension divides not only the countries going through the transitions toward capitalism and democracy but increasingly as the Alaskan case shows Western countries as well.

Until recently, many people in the West uncritically accepted the notion that the multiple transitions the post-communist countries have to undergo are necessarily reinforcing rather than often contradictory.

That is, many in the West believed that capitalist economic growth and a freer democratic society would go hand in hand. And these observers believed that by supporting one of these goals, the West was supporting both of them. That belief provided what unity there was in Western countries for supporting the changes in the former communist states.

While this underlying belief may be true in the longer term, it has definitely not been true in the short run.

In all too many cases, only relatively authoritarian governments have been able to introduce economic reforms -- precisely because of the costs such reforms impose on the population.

And more democratic governments which are responsive to the population often have been the most reluctant to introduce reforms that would at least in the short run have an adverse impact on the people.

That has divided Western publics into those who are most concerned with economic development and those who are more concerned with other goals, including democracy.

In general and not surprisingly, the former group has been more influential than the latter at least at the level of state policy in large measure because it does not require any action by Western governments.

But the divisions between the two as reflected in the Alaskan reaction to the Chukchi vote may have the effect of making it more difficult for Western governments to assemble domestic political support needed to provide additional assistance to the post-communist states.

And reductions in the level of such support will inevitably make all the transitions of these countries more difficult and render relations between these countries and the West more problematic.