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Russia: Remote Regions Face Coldest Winter In 30 Years

By Floriana Fossato and Russell Working

Moscow, 11 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- With temperatures across Russia now plummeting, there is growing concern that the most deprived Russian citizens --particularly those in remote regions-- will have a difficult time getting through the Winter.

Russian meteorologists warn that during the coming months temperatures will reach their lowest levels in decades. Speaking yesterday on the commercial television channel NTV, the director of Russia's weather-forecast agency Gidrometzentr, Aleksandr Vasilev, predicted that this Winter will be the coldest since the 1960s.

Daytime temperatures in Moscow today fell to minus 15 degrees Celsius, while night temperatures are expected to drop to about minus 20 degrees. At the same time, in the Arctic Chukotka region just across the Bering Strait from Alaska, temperatures have plunged to minus 25 degrees and are forecast to drop further.

The average Winter temperatures in the Chukotka range from minus 35 to minus 55 degrees. But Vasilev said that temperatures as low as those recorded in Moscow and other regions in November occur only once every 20 years. Russian TV channels report that about 1,000 people will soon be evacuated from Chukotka because it has become too expensive to supply them with food and with electricity for heat and hot water.

Difficulties in obtaining adequate fuel and food supplies are not a novelty for people in regions throughout the Far North and Far East. But this year, as the country's economic crisis cut off supplies during the Summer months, whole districts have been cut off.

Many regions of the Far North have reportedly not received enough fuel to make it through the Winter. Alexander Tryapitsyn, deputy governor of the Chukotka region, told ORT public television last week that authorities have moved 1,100 people out of the Cape Schmidt area and are hoping to move at least 2,000 more to Chukotka's larger towns.

The daily "Moscow Times" quotes one of the 2,000 residents of the Chukotka village of Mys Shmidta, Yelena Maglevannaya, saying that only the village school and hospital are centrally heated. She said other buildings are warmed by electric heaters or home-made stoves.

But it is unclear whether evacuation operations are still underway in Chukotka. Tryapitsyn said that evacuating residents has become too costly for regional authorities. He said that each relocation costs about 50,000 rubles (or $3,200).

The situation is not much better in other regions. The Governor of the Far East Magadan region, Valentin Tsvetkov, recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, warning that without outside help Magadan will not be able to supply itself with food and fuel or provide for its poorest citizens. Magadan authorities have requested additional funding for buying fuel and 20,000 tons of food.

In their talks last week on a U.S. food-aid package, American and Russian negotiators focused in no small part on providing food to Russia's more remote regions. Critics say past aid packages from the West have been poorly conceived. They worry that they may also be poorly implemented, despite the needs of Russia's most destitute citizens, both in big cities and isolated remote regions.

According to the weekly "Ekspert," government officials have tried to give the impression they have met food needs in remote Northern regions by sharply reducing what is considered the minimum amount of food necessary for a person to survive. As an example, the weekly says that the sugar ration was reduced from 66 to 30 grams a day.

Temperatures have dropped below freezing in the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok. But our correspondent there reports that the city's heating system has only just been turned on. The Interfax news agency reports schools and day-care centers in the city have been closed.

Elsewhere, below-zero temperatures are also creating difficulties. On the Pacific island of Sakhalin, home residents are limited to a few hours of electricity daily because the region lacks fuel. Temperatures on the Kamchatka peninsula last week dipped to 18 degrees below zero, and a fuel shortage left tens of thousands of families without heat or electricity. Government officials traveled to the region with pledges of emergency shipments of oil and money.

In the regional capital of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, power has been cut off in some city regions for between 14 and 21 hours a day. Larisa Ponomaryova, an employee at the mayor's office, told our correspondent that her neighborhood had been without electricity for 21 hours a day for over a month.

The regional power utility Kamchatenergo imports its fuel from South Korea and the U.S., and is the only power company in the country whose fuel is supplied by ocean-going tankers. A spokesman for the utility told RFE/RL that not only has the ruble crisis frightened off importers, but federal and local governments have owed Kamchatenergo more than 2,000 million rubles ($129 million) for nine months. He said that "suppliers are afraid that we will never be able to pay, and they stopped delivering fuel here."

Kamchatka's regional parliament recently passed a resolution asking the United Nations for fuel aid.

(Russell Working reported from Vladivostok. Nonna Chernyakova also contributed to this report.)