Bellingham, Wash; 26 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Sixty years ago, three Russian aviators made the first flight over the North Pole, flying from Moscow to Vancouver -- not the big Canadian city -- but the small American city of the same name in the U.S. Pacific Coast state of Washington.
This wasn't the crew's original destination. A lack of fuel forced Commander V.P. Chkalov to land 12,000 kilometers north of San Francisco, their planned destination on the California coast.
That historic accident served, however, as a focal point for the visit to Washington of 78 Russian government and business leaders this week. The delegation is led by Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Bulgak, the ranking Russian visitor in these parts since President Boris Yeltsin visited Seattle in 1994 for a summit, hosted by President Clinton, of the heads of state of member nations of the Asian Pacific Economic Forum, or APEC.
While Vancouver, Washington drew the Russians to commemorative ceremonies, the spirit of that congenial visit carried over into the real purpose behind the Russian visit to the Pacific Northwest -- to talk business at a conference in Seattle to foster commercial ties on both sides of the Pacific.
Bulgak told Washington Governor Gary Locke that the Russian delegation's intent is to develop a continuing business relationship with Washington firms and the state government. But, Bulgak conceded, "there is a long way to go."
Nonetheless, trade between the two countries totaled $7.9 billion dollars last year, double what it was five years earlier.
This week's conference made clear, however, that much remains to be done, chiefly in the legal arena on both sides.
So the Seattle business conference was welcomed by both sides as a means of clearing the air and reducing friction between the two new trading partners.
At the conference, Bulgak urged American investors to show greater interest in Russia, where total private investment currently amounts to less than $3.5 billion and, he said, should be "10 or 15 times more," given Russia's riches in natural resources and technology.
The biggest drawback to private American investors, said an official of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Jan Kalicki, is what he called gaps in Russian law pertaining to investments, taxes and enforcement of legal contracts between Russians and foreign investors. Filling these gaps, Kalicki said, is central to reducing the uncertainty that keeps many foreigners on the outside looking in -- but not yet investing.
These problems are being overcome, Bulgak told the conference. For example, the Duma last week past on first reading a complete revision to update and simplify the Russian tax code. Bulgak urged the Americans, therefore, not to hold back and "waste time."
Referring to the Russian polar flight that landed in Washington state on June 20, 1937, Bulgak added that "the best way to commemorate that event would be to develop economic ties."