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Russia: Road Projects Threaten Altaian Environment And Identity

A Russian federal project is seeking to link up the remote and backward Altai republic in southeastern Siberia with its neighbors China and Kazakhstan through two major new roads. Despite promises of economic development, most native Altaians would prefer to remain isolated.

Gorno-Altaisk, Russia; 29 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Ukok plateau, in the south of the Altai republic, is so remote most of it is only accessible on foot or by helicopter. The native people live as they have for centuries, taking their traditional tents -- or "ails" -- to summer pasture after their livestock. The only regular visitors are archaeologists hoping to make spectacular finds preserved in the permafrost.

But that could soon change. The Siberian Agreement, an association of Siberian regions, wants to build a major road through the plateau that would link Western Siberia with neighboring China. A second project would connect Russia and Kazakhstan by a road through the mountainous Ust-Koxa region in the Altai republic's southeast.

The two roads are being touted as a source of economic revival for Altai, one of the poorest republics of the Russian federation. Here, the average human-life span is only 44 years, and 85 percent of the population lives below the official poverty line.

But far from welcoming the roads, most native Altaians are opposed to building them. They are concerned about the ecological damage the roads could cause to one of the most untouched natural environments in Russia. They are suspicious of promises of economic gain. But mostly they fear that their already fragile ethnic group will be swallowed up in cross-border trade and migration.

The Kazakh road has already been approved by the Russian government and construction is underway. The more controversial China-Russia road is still under discussion. But according to the Altai government's first deputy chairman for agriculture, Viktor Bezruchenkov, Altai authorities firmly back the project.

"The government is interested in the roads, as would any government that seeks a revival of its territory and the foundation of a network of transport roads and subsequent other industrial branches -- communications, energy, services will all develop. The road construction will [also] ease the unemployment problem. So from the economic point of view, it's profitable. There is just a political question."

In fact, Altai government members are still far from united on the issue. Many -- like Yuri Antaradanov, the first deputy chairman for native Altaian affairs -- think the human and environmental costs are too high to pay. Antaradanov:

"I, personally -- not as a government member -- am against this major building. I think you can't build a road here. First, it is not economically profitable for us. Second, there's the political question. We think the disease that has infected the far east shouldn't be allowed to reach the Altai republic- - I mean, unlimited access for the Chinese to the Altai republic. The road will be at very high altitude, over a mountain pass of 3,500 meters, which will require major building work, and it goes through the Ukok plateau, designated a 'quiet zone' by UNESCO."

Since 1998, the Ukok plateau has been included on UNESCO's world heritage list as part of the Golden Mountains of Altai. The plateau is not only home to many rare plants and animals, including the globally threatened snow leopard. It is also dotted with stone statues, carvings and kurgans -- or burial mounds -- from Altai's rich history. Many Russian archaeologists have made their names here, and the Altaians consider the area a vital part of their culture.

Uli Grabener, a junior officer in UNESCO's Moscow office, told our correspondent that UNESCO would try to secure the transit corridor in order to protect the plateau.

"We are very much concerned, because the aim of the world heritage convention is to protect the most important natural and cultural sites in the world, and one of these is the Altai mountains and especially this plateau. When the Russian Federation nominated the Altai [as a part of the heritage program, it] took the responsibility to protect this area and the values of this area. And we fear now that the road would most likely affect the values -- the snow leopard and things like that."

The Altaians are not only afraid they will lose their ancient cultural heritage if the road project goes ahead. They think they may lose their ethnic identity, too. In the 18th century, the Altaians appealed to Russia for protection against Chinese aggression -- a historical fact that still has resonance today. Now, they fear a situation such as prevails in Russia's far east, where they say Chinese migration has brought problems of crime, drug and human trafficking, and ethnic tensions.

RFE/RL spoke with Sergei Tondoyev of the non-governmental organization Ene Til (Our Language):

"No doubt, there would be economic benefits. But what about the future? The far east shows us the expansion of China -- in five or 10 years, they [the Chinese] will demand autonomy for the far east. We could have the same situation here. We don't have a population of a million, or 10 million. Here, the entire native population is 70,000. We can quickly disappear in that mass."

Altai relations with Kazakhstan, soon to be joined to the republic by road, are more friendly. The two peoples share linguistic and cultural roots, and Kazakh families have lived in the Altai republic for generations. The projected Russia-Kazakhstan road has its opponents, too, but at least the Altai Kazakhs would welcome closer links with this neighbor.