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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Arctic Allies?

Washington, 19 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's effort to play up similarities between his country and Canada in the Arctic region as part of his effort to weaken American influence around the world could backfire in the Russian Federation itself. On his arrival in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, from Havana on Sunday night, Putin stressed that Russia and Canada are very similar in that they both have enormous territories and immense natural wealth in the high Arctic, parallels that he argued should make them natural allies against efforts by the United States to create a monopolar world.

This geopolitical calculation appears to be behind Putin's visit to the last of the G-7 capitals he pledged to visit a year ago. Sergei Rogov, the director of Moscow's Institute for the USA and Canada, made this point bluntly: "If the United States has interests in Russia's 'near abroad," the longtime Americanist said, then "Russia has interests in Canada, Mexico and Cuba," a reference to the other stop on Putin's current North American tour.

But in attempting to dramatize these similarities, Putin may have created some new problems for himself at home. Following a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on Monday, Putin and his host signed an accord on expanding cooperation between these and other regions of their two countries. That action in turn follows a conference between regional experts of the two countries.

At that meeting, presidential representative to the Siberian Federal District Leonid Drachevsky discussed the problems of Russian and Canadian federalism. And while he noted that "many practical issues are solved differently in Russia and Canada," he argued that the two countries have "common approaches to the problems of federalism."

Both Drachevsky and his boss may face problems because of this claim because the two countries have behaved very differently. Over the past decade, Canada has poured enormous resources into the region as part of its broader multicultural and regional development programs. And it has created a new province, Nunavut, for the Inuit of the former Northwest territories.

Because the Inuit of Canada and many of the 26 indigenous nationalities of the Russian north have already been in contact through the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Russian Federation communities are well-aware of what the Canadian government has done. Now, they are likely to become even more attentive and to draw comparisons with their own situation at home.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has spent less and less money on and given less attention to what Soviet scholars called the 26 "small peoples of the North" who number fewer than 700,000 but whose territory embraces one-third of the area of the Russian Federation.

The Russian government has destroyed much of the institutional infrastructure within the central government that was intended to protect them, including several ministries and committees charged with providing assistance to northern peoples. And it has put economic development ahead of the interests of these communities on nearly every occasion.

That Russian approach has had three consequences, the mix of which could become troublesome especially if communities there begin to draw on the Canadian experience. First, the collapse of government subsidies to the peoples of the North in Russia has reduced their standard of living, health conditions and life expectancies, often to levels dramatically worse than in central Russia.

Second, that end of subsidies has meant the dramatic outflow of ethnic Russians and other Slavs who had come to dominate the region in Soviet times. As a result, the local communities now form a far higher percentage of the total local population than they did only a few years ago, a demographic shift that in some places has been accompanied by a shift in attitudes as well.

And third, the increasing economic and even geopolitical meaning of the Arctic for Moscow creates a situation in which local people may now be in a far better position to make demands on the center for the redress of their grievances cultural, economic, and even political.

A generation ago, the Soviet migr writer Edward Topol described in his novel "Red Snow" how one small ethnic group in this region could challenge Moscow's control over the enormous and strategically important Arctic region of the country by taking advantage of its understanding of the region and of the isolation of key Soviet strategic sites there.

If the peoples of Russia's far north, a region that embraces almost a third of the country, should begin to demand that Moscow follow Ottawa's example, a development Putin's visit to Canada could in fact promote, then Topol's novelistic fantasy might finally be realized in a way many in Russia would very much oppose.