There were two hours to go Wednesday afternoon at the international conference “The Arctic – Territory of Dialogue” when the organizers, The Russian Geographical Society, announced that all foreign correspondents had to get out of the Russian Arctic by sundown.
With the internet shutting down and four buses lined up to ferry all foreign journalists to the airport, the “Territory of Dialogue” suddenly started to look like a Potemkin conference.
We had gathered in Salekhard, a three-hour, 2,000 kilometer flight northeast of Moscow, to cover a 2-day meeting of Arctic experts from Russia, Canada, Alaska, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
Given the time invested and distance traveled, many of the Moscow-based foreign correspondents planned to stay on in Salekhard and do news features.
As a brilliant Arctic sun illuminated the first snow of the season, a Chinese TV crews intended to film this city of 45,000, an oil and gas boom town. A Danish newspaper reporter planned to explore, checking out the museum on the native Nenets people and the Baby Mammoth monument. He wanted to have his picture taken straddling a line representing the Arctic Circle, which cuts through Salekhard. The VOA team planned to do a story on reindeer herding, the clean up of military debris from an Arctic island, and the historical remains of gulag camps, where prisoners once labored on the “Railroad of Death.”
But, as the Arctic light started to fade, Vera Orlova, spokesman for the Russian Geographical Society, would have none of it. She was pumped from winning not so hidden battles with other Russian organizers. They had argued that the foreign reporters should stay in Salekhard for more than 30 hours.
“Salekhard is in a border zone, and you do not have permission to stay here beyond Wednesday evening,” she said, as journalists started shoveling their papers into their new blue “Dialogue” gift shoulder bags.
Does this mean the “Dialogue” is over? I asked her.
“This is an absolutely normal procedure,” she responded, referring to a sporadically enforced law regarding border regions. “We received permission to stay in the border territory of Salekhard specifically for those days you have come for the conference.”
Salekhard, on the Ob River, is actually over 1,000 kilometers by boat from the international waters of the Arctic Ocean. Locals say the “border’ law seems to have been extended to Salekhard largely to protect an energy boomtown from southern job seekers who would not be prepared to deal with the potential fatal challenges of living in the Arctic.
Pressed on this, Orlova said such visitor restrictions are common around the Arctic.
The “but everyone else does it” argument is fast becoming a shopworn justification for many authoritarian regulations of the Putin era.
The United States registers foreign-funded NGOs as “foreign agents.” (Wrong). European nations have already adopted laws banning “gay propaganda.” (Wrong). Towns around the Arctic expel foreigners who do not carry special visitors permits (Flat wrong).
As a reporter and as a tourist, I have visited Arctic communities around the world, and I have always found Northern peoples to be welcoming and hospitable. They are invariably pleased that you have come such long distance to visit their world.
No one once asked me if I had a permit to visit and stay in their community. To many of the hospitable and helpful people I met, I am sure the idea would have been unthinkably rude.
Ok, the one Arctic Ocean nation, I have not visited is Norway. But they seem mighty hospitable to Russians these days.
Last year, Norway and Russia started a visa free system for the 9,000 Norwegians and 45,000 Russians living within 30 kilometers of their Arctic border. Residents can cross and stay visa-free in the other country for as long as 15 days.
The fruit of this creative thinking is as blindingly clear as Arctic sunshine on snow covered tundra. The Barents Observer website reports that 300,000 border crossings are forecast triple the level of four years ago. As a result, $30 million is being invested to dramatically expand the lone Norway-Russia border crossing.
A similar boom is taking place at the two Russian border crossings with the Finnish Lapland. Last year, these two checkpoints registered 349,721 crossings, up 36 percent year over year. This is the biggest jump in a larger surge of Russians visiting Finland.
Finland’s consulate in St. Petersburg reportedly holds the title of the world’s busiest consulate. Travel experts forecast that there will be 20 million Russian visits to Finland in 2017.
In light of this Northern hospitality and mutual flexibility on visas, the Salekhard debacle seems out of step with modern times. Security officials undoubtedly argue – with a straight face – that Salekhard has a unique strategic value.
Viewed through bus windows, Salekhard looks like a pleasant place. But surrounded by thousands of kilometers of empty tundra, Salekhard has a hard time posing as a strategic choke point. It is not Gibraltar or Istanbul. This recalls a comment reportedly made by Henry Kissinger in 1984, during the Falklands War. Kissinger described Argentina as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.”
It is odd that the Russian Geographical Society, a group devoted to widening horizons and opening minds since its founding in 1845, would now devote its energies to closing doors.
It is sad that the Society, which has benefitted from almost two centuries of hospitality extended by Arctic peoples, would not have absorbed some of the rules of the road in the High North.
Sitting in the Yamal Air plane waiting for takeoff, I called a Russian contact in Salekhard to cancel a TV interview. Her parting words: “Come on back!”
(Forbidden Photo? Airport Police were dismayed to find reporters taking souvenir pictures of each other at Salekhard Airport. Here VOA photographer, Vera Undritz (hooded, top) prepares to descend into first snowstorm of the year. VOA Photo: James Brooke)