Sunday, November 3, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Sakha Residents Face Soviet-Style Deficits in Goods and Services

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 3 – Because bad weather has limited deliveriesand because officials are guilty of poor planning, residents in the northern Sakha are experiencing the kind of Soviet-era deficits Moscow says are a thing of the past, forced to stand in long lines for basic goods and to buy whatever’s available lest nothing be on the shelves tomorrow.

            Almost every year when the rivers start to freeze but have not yet become the ice roads on which this roadless region relies, residents suffer from shortages of food and fuel, but this year has been especially bad with 28 ships trapped in the river ice ( and people fighting over goods and fearful they will run out of fuel and food in a few weeks.

                One town especially hard hit by this tragedy is Belaya Gora, a district center populated by some 2,000 ethnic Russians.  Lacking any highways to the outside world, they rely on ships until the rivers freeze into solid ice roads. But this year 17 cargo ships are trapped in the partially frozen ice and people there are desperate (

            The only short-term solution is for this and other towns to be supplied by air, a slow process given how little any of the planes can carry and an expensive one given that the costs of fuel for the planes exceed the value of the cargoes. Nonetheless, some food and 4900 tons of coal have been brought in by air, far less in each case than is needed but better than nothing.

              And this shortage of fuel has been compounded by problems in the local heating units, problems that the authorities have done little to fi.  As a result, in the northern portion of Sakha, one of the coldest places on earth, 79 apartment buildings, 55 private homes, schools, kindergartens, and government buildings remain without heat.

             The immediate cause of all these problems is the weather. It has gotten cold but not cold enough to freeze the rivers into ice roads. But the underlying problems are more serious: there are no roads of any kind in this northern area, something Moscow has not addressed, and officials at both the regional and local level have failed to plan ahead.

              One blogger there has suggested withholding the pay of officials until the situation is corrected. That seems unlikely but it is a measure of the anger many in isolated parts of Russia feel toward their government, an anger all the greater because of the good life in Moscow they see on television and of the enormous sums being spent on spectacles like the Sochi Olympics.

             While some will be likely to dismiss this human tragedy as relatively unimportant – after all, it affects “only” a few thousand people far away about whom most Muscovites know nothing – it is serious because it focuses attention on broader problems that affect almost all residents of Russia: inadequate roads, official indifference, and a life for many increasingly on the edge.

             Hungry and cold people in decaying apartments many time zones away from the bright lights of Moscow may not attract the media attention that efforts to get Aeroflot stewardesses to smile do, but they likely will have a great deal more to say about the future of Russia -- or at the very least should have.

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