Easing Travel Burdens
Those obstacles paired with the expense of traveling in the region can prove prohibitive to many. At present, there are two options for air travel between Alaska and Chukotka: chartering a flight across the strait — a process that can require either a lot of money or a healthy dose of luck, or circumnavigating the globe.
“Travel in Alaska is expensive by any means that you choose, but travelling to Russia is difficult,” said Kozlowski. “Alaska and Russia are so close across the Bering Strait, and yet one of the most reliable routes is to fly from Anchorage to DC, then to Moscow, and then over to Anadyr or Provideniya, which takes weeks and a lot of money. The only other [air-travel] alternative is to fly a charter flight from Nome over to Provideniya or Anadyr. But even then, the costs are pretty expensive.”
Porsild agreed. “The cost to facilitate and obtain a Russian visa for an Alaskan is about $200 and $500,” she said, adding: “To fly a plane of 19 people between Nome, Alaska and Anadyr, Chukotka costs about $22,000; if each local Native person you plan to put on that plane now also needs to pay… for a visa, it obviously puts a crimp on what will take place from a financial stand-point.”
Although the visa-waiver program effectively cuts costs, air-travel across the Bering Strait remains pricey. But both Kozlowski and Porsild noted that sea travel is beginning to look like a viable alternative to sea travel.
“Native people that live in coastal areas have some opportunity to travel by boat across the strait. In fact, last year, two boats from Russia came over to St. Lawrence Island. That’s a more economical way for them to come, but they still can’t travel freely without the visa-free process,” Kozlowski said. Alaska Dispatch News reported in July 2014 that 12 men had taken aluminum skiffs from Provideniya on the Russian side to Gambell, on Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island.
Porsild likewise noted that boating is a promising potential alternative to flying: “This is discouraged by the authorities because of risks in the waterway but I suspect it will increase with this visa-free [program]now being reinstated, since this is a very real and affordable (and traditional) way of travel for the local Natives.”
Beringia: A Diplomatic Oasis
In May 2011, prior to the recent deterioration of Moscow-Washington ties, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his US counterpart Barack Obama issued a joint statement declaring their intention to boost bilateral cooperation on the Bering State region.
The statement noted that the presidents recognized “the worldwide cultural and natural significance of the Bering Strait region, both as an ancient crossroads and as an area of present-day cooperation between our two countries.” Four years later, relations between Russia and the US have soured considerably. Despite this, a concrete step has been taken toward preserving cultural ties between the neighboring nations’ shared indigenous community and preserving a region whose legacy is crucial to all of humanity.
“People always say that grassroots efforts are most effective in bringing peace or [improving]relationships between countries from the bottom up,” Kozlowski said. “The visa-waiver program may only be important to a small portion of the population of the United States, but it’s a very important one to them, and it should be important to all of us to see the possibilities of improved US-Russia relations, and the possibilities for people to continue to share language and other aspects of their culture that they’ve not been able to for a really long time.”
Porsild lauded the reinstatement of the visa-waiver program as a major regional victory, far removed from icy relations between the Russian and American capitals. “I know there is great desire in both Chukotka and Alaska for collaboration and friendly communication — exploring ways to build this region up and work together between the Administrations,” she said. “I think the overcoming of this visa-free mess plays an important role in this process. It is an opportunity to move forward and find ways to support one another in the recognition that both of these places, Alaska and Chukotka, are very, very far away from their national administration and the politics of Moscow and Washington.”
With the visa-free program back in effect, Porsild and her team are now hoping to revive another tradition: the transcontinental Nadezhda Hope sled dog race. “In 1991 as the Russian Federation came to be, people of Alaska and Chukotka came together to create a dogsled race to celebrate and illustrate their hope for the future — a future of people coming together in this region. The sled dog race started in Nome, Alaska — went across the Bering Strait — and continued on in Chukotka to end in Anadyr. This was the world first and only transcontinental sled dog race,” she said. “Since 1992 the race has only been on the Russian side in Chukotka. We are now working with the Administration in Chukotka to again have the race on both sides – having the Native mushers from both sides travel the trail in celebration of the tradition and significant historical culture of this place. With this visa-free agreement in place, we are now a whole lot closer to be able to make it a reality.” The race’s 25th anniversary edition is set to take place next April.
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