Russian red tape halts US aid to hungry Arctic

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FARCICAL and outdated Russian laws are thwarting efforts to provide desperately needed aid to stranded inhabitants of the Arctic north, who risk starvation as winter tightens its grip.

Information gathered by Red Cross officials in Alaska, which has strong ethnic connections with the inhabitants of Russia's far north-east, has produced an exasperating picture of frustration and red tape. Concerned about the fate of their indigenous counterparts in Russia, Alaskans have been eager to send humanitarian aid across the Bering Strait, the sea which divides the prosperous far north-west of the United States from Russia's crisis-hit, perilously poor Chukotka region.

Finding out about the scale of the crisis in the most threatened parts of Arctic Russia is difficult, because of their extreme remoteness, but alarming information has been reaching international aid organisations about villages dotted along the Chukotka's coastline, some less than 100 miles from Alaska's shores. The most remote and harsh parts of the country are worst affected by Russia's economic maelstrom, which has severed fragile Soviet-era supply lines from Moscow.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that reports gleaned by the US Red Cross include the following complaints:

t Medical supplies offered to Chukotka by US hospitals have repeatedly been turned back by the authorities on the grounds that they were "outdated" - a clause that even applied to bandages

and plaster.

t Although some of the most beleaguered Arctic villages in Russia have received no new clothes supplies for three years, and are without heating, Russian officials insist that aid packages of clothing come with a certificate showing that they have been dry-cleaned. This is said to be a measure to prevent the spread of vermin, although the Alaskans say there is no risk of this. They also point out that Nome - the nearest sizeable Alaskan town to the Russian coastline - has no dry- cleaners.

t Humanitarian food supplies over the value of $10,000 cannot be cleared locally but must be referred to officials in Moscow, more than 5,000 miles away. Yet, as shipping the aid from the US West Coast to Russia's far north-east is expensive, consignments worth less than $10,000 are not cost-effective.

The Red Cross has been told there is an "imminent risk" of starvation among a "large proportion" of the inhabitants of some villages in Chukotka, whose population of about 65,000 faces nine-month winters in which temperatures can fall below minus 50C.

Conditions have been worsened by a poor hunting and fishing season, the cancellation of one of three shipping lines between Alaska and the Russian far north-east, and the non-arrival of ships carrying supplies. Last week a Finnish-owned tanker carrying 13,400 tons of fuel finally made it to Chukotka's port of Pevek - on the peninsula's north coast - but only after spending a fortnight struggling through thick ice in the Arctic Sea.

Electricity in Provideniya, a regional centre on the coast, is off for 20 hours a day because of a coal shortage, a problem which is likely to be worse in the more remote areas. Among the villages known to be struggling for survival as the Arctic winter deepens are Lorino, Uelen, Inchoun, and Yanrakynnot. Most at risk are the elderly - who have not received pensions for up to a year - and the young.

Last week the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Moscow warned that Chukotka was facing "unprecedented hardship", which "could threaten the very survival of some indigenous minorities".

Some officials say that life expectancy in the region has fallen as low as 40; others say it could be as little as 34. Cardiovascular problems, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases are rife, but there is a dire shortage of medicines. The Red Cross has dispatched a five-member team to Russia's east and north on an assessment mission for a relief effort.