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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.