Moscow – Conventional wisdom holds that upward of twelve thousand years ago, North America’s earliest human inhabitants crossed the Bering Land Bridge from modern-day Russia’s Far East. Rising seas have long since converted that land bridge into the narrow Bering Strait dividing Russia’s Chukotka region from America’s Alaska. However, the ancient region has emerged as a surprising warm spot amid modern bilateral relations that seem chillier by the day.
Traditions Mired in Bureaucracy
Today, the indigenous peoples of Alaska and Chukotka continue to share strong cultural and familial ties. But international borders rigidly bolstered during the Cold War era stymied the long-standing practice of boating across the continental divide to visit friends and relatives.
Representatives of the US and Soviet governments gathered in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1989 to sign an intergovernmental agreement in a bid to address the situation. The agreement aimed to strengthen cooperation in the Bering Strait region and to allow Alaska and Chukotka’s indigenous populations to reconnect with their relatives and restore cultural ties. Chukotka authorities state on their website they have had a system in place since 1992 for their own indigenous residents to travel to Alaska in connection with the 1989 agreement.
What has happened with the program on the US side is less clear. “A visa-free travel program was instituted by the governments of the United States and Russia in the early 1990s,” according to an information page on the website of the Shared Beringian Heritage Program, a US government program tasked with fostering cooperation in the region. The page, which has not been updated since October 2013, noted: “there is no Web site in the United States that provides information on the [visa-free] agreement or program.” It refers readers to the Chukotka administration’s website, which primarily caters to its own residents in describing the protocol for travelling visa-free across the strait.
The same Shared Beringian Heritage Program information page provided an in-depth explanation to would-be travelers on how to go about applying for Russian visas.
Sources familiar with the situation have claimed that though the visa-free program was previously in effect, it has been derailed in recent years by a series of bureaucratic flubs on the US side. Two US officials contacted for this article said they were unable to discuss the cause of the breakdown of the program, citing a lack of authorization from the State Department to address the issue with the media.
Reviving the Visa-Waiver Program
But as of July 17, indigenous residents on both sides will be able to cross the strait, Chukotka authorities said in a statement, noting that the US side had recently communicated its readiness to revive the program.
As with the program’s breakdown, the factors that prompted the program’s revival are unclear, as officials contacted for this article had not received authorization from the State Department to discuss them. But sources familiar with the situation said a great deal of work went into the process, and the development has been lauded as a major success — particularly against the backdrop of the otherwise stormy relations between the US and Russia.
“We do consider [the program’s revival]a major breakthrough,” said Shared Beringian Heritage Program Manager Janis Kozlowski in a phone interview. “It’s something we’ve been waiting for for several years at least, and it’s an important thing for people in Alaska. While it may not effect a large population like you might have in an action of this sort in the [mainland United States], it’s significant at a different level in Alaska — not by sheer numbers, but by the possibilities it provides.”
Ms. Kozlowski added, “The cultural and familial ties that people have across the Bering Strait are very old and very strong, and despite the fact that they’ve been separated for many years, they have not lost sight of the fact that they have relatives and friends that are only miles away across the Bering Strait.”
Kozlowski’s enthusiasm was shared by Mille Porsild, an Arctic explorer and Executive Director of GoNorth! Adventure Learning, a non-profit educational organization that works to support traditional Beringian sports and games. “The reinstatement of the Alaska-Chukotka visa waiver program will strengthen the Native peoples in coming together to guide, protect and develop… the region,” said Porsild, whose organization largely relies on the ability of Indigenous peoples to come together to preserve cultural traditions. For example, GoNorth! Adventure Learning’s Traditional Beringian Sports and Games program worked with the Chukotka authorities to facilitate the first-ever Beringia Arctic Games in 2014, which brought Native people from all Arctic nations together to participate in traditional arctic games and skin-boat races.
“This visa waiver program is necessary to truly allow communication, exchange and collaboration between Natives of the region because otherwise cost, time and money, for a Native Yupik or Chukchi to travel is basically an impossible obstacle to overcome,” Porsild said, adding that the program allows indigenous people in Alaska and Chukotka to come together as a “force to be respected and included in decision-making processes,” a key concern as Russian and US authorities seek to further develop the region.
Though residents eligible for the visa-waiver program will still be required to obtain invitation letters from across the strait, they will save both time and money by dodging the standard visa requirements — which can cost hundreds of dollars and take weeks to process.
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