Local skepticism meets government optimism at a major Arctic event in Russia

Russia has big development plans for its Arctic regions. The people who live there worry those plans won't do enough to help their communities.

1094
Attendees of the conference “Arctic: Today and the future” in Saint Petersburg Russia stroll past a Gazprom display. (Martin Breum)

A large Russian conference on Arctic development kicked off on Thursday in Saint Petersburg with optimistic government presentations — but also a burst of skepticism from representatives of those actually living in Russia’s Arctic and Far East regions.

Alexander Krutikov, deputy minister for Russia’s Far East and Arctic regions, outlined the Russian government’s top priorities for Arctic development on the first day of the “Arctic: Today and the future” conference. The deputy minister talked of potential new tax cuts to businesses investing in the Arctic, but he also said that his ministry was considering earmarking tax revenues from businesses in the north for northern development until living standards there are on par with the rest of the country.

Krutikov reiterated how President Vladimir Putin has set as a national target that 80 million tons of cargo should flow through Russia’s Northern Sea Route annually by 2024, a substantial increase from the 27 million tons carried on the route this year (according to figures cited by government officials at the conference).

“I am sure that it will increase to 160 million tons by 2035,” Krutikov added — echoing a palpable optimism of other official presentations about the Northern Sea Route at the conference.

Krutikov explained how the development of infrastructure, including faster internet, roads, rails and harbors along the Northern Sea Route would benefit local communities and create jobs in the north. He also predicted how natural gas from Russia’s Arctic gasfields would potentially replace much of the coal and diesel currently used to generate heat and power in large parts of the north.

Calls for more benefit to local communities

After Krutikov’s presentation of new large-scale federal plans for infrastructure developments and tax cuts for oil and gas enterprises in the Russian Arctic, three representatives of Russia’s Arctic provinces and regions called for more attention to the social needs of those living there.

“We need not only support for entrepreneurs and businesses. We need clear legislation that benefits those who live in the Arctic,” said Valentina Pivnenko, deputy chairman of the Committee of Regional Policy and Issues of the Arctic and Far East of  Russia’s parliament, the Duma.

Pivnenko, a veteran of Arctic politics in Russia, told the more than 1,000 politicians, government officials, regional leaders and business representatives at the IX International Forum of the Association of Polar Explorers that the quality of life of those living in Russia’s north still registers well below that of the average Russian citizen. She welcomed the government’s new plans for the Arctic, but remained, she said, doubtful as to whether they would all be implemented.

“The budgets for the next three years have already been adopted, and these projects were absent,” she said. She did concede that some large scale projects have been successfully implemented, in particular the natural gas project at Sabetta on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. The massive Novatek liquefied natural gas plant at Sabetta on the Ob River, which cost some $27 billion to build, was completed ahead of schedule in December 2018 with Chinese and French technical and financial inputs.

“At first Sabetta seemed like science fiction, but now it is developed and growing,” Pivnenko said.

I.L. Spector, president of the Union of the Cities of the Russian Arctic and Far East, said that many citizens in the north still lived in housing that dates back to the Soviet era and is badly in need of repair or beyond repair.

“We should be ashamed of all these buildings in critical condition, but the cities in the north don’t have the funds to do anything about them,” he said. He also talked about scores ill-prepared entrepreneurs scrambling to get at the increased government funds for new projects in the north.

“These people don’t know the Arctic at all. They believe penguins live there,” he said.

Alexander Akimov, a member of Russia’s Federal Council (the upper house of Russia’s parliament) from the Sakha Republic, called for improved medical services in the north, including airlifts in emergencies:

“People need to be able to bring their children to hospital. This needs urgent attention,” he said.

“We need better social policies, also for the elderly. Without such improvements there will be no people left up there to employ for the Arctic development projects,” he said. He called for a re-start of educational programs for Russia’s Indigenous communities that were abolished when the Soviet Union was dissolved.

“We would like to have those programs back,” he said.

The conference will run through Saturday.