Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Contrast and Focus - Scotland and Ugra

The geographic, climatic and cultural differences between Scotland and Ugra are very obvious - or are they?
From Shetland to Berwick it is 800km and as narrow as 40km between the Forth and Clyde, but we also have 100 inhabited islands. Our Atlantic temperate climate includes cool, wet winters and cool, wet, slightly warmer summers. Ugra is 1,400 km from the Ural mountains in the west, across the West Siberian Plains along tributaries of the Rivers Ob and Irtysh. Its short summer, deep in the continent of Asia, is warmer than London whilst winter is a ferociously dry cold dozens below zero.

Yet the Khanty-Mansiysk [KM] Autonomous Okrug - Yugra founded in 1930 is the same latitude as Muckle Flugga and St Petersburg. Nowhere near the Arctic Circle, the view of the stereotype.
The Russian Federation has been reorganised under Pres. Putin after the free for all in the Yeltsin years, but the KM government - with one and half million population in an area the size of France - keeps a proportion of the oil revenues from the production of oil that is 70 percent of Russia's total output. It is also a significant gas exporter. Of course 80 percent plus of oil in the North Sea is in Scottish waters but all oil revenues go straight to the London Government.

What does Ugra look like? 90 percent is virgin forest, the rest bog and huge waterways. Near KM city the Ob is a kilometre wide. River transport is open here from 15 May to 15 October
and the Arctic Newport at the mouth of the river a thousand kilometres north is ice free for two months only. Hovercraft are needed to serve riverside villages on the tributaries to navigate treacherous sand banks.
In human terms the indigenous Knanty-Mansi people number 25,000. They are part of the Fenno Ugrian language group having migrated west in some numbers in the 9th century. The Soviet period suppressed all other languages other than Russian. Now the way of life, heritage and languages are promoted and taught. They bark and pole 'tipis' or chooms provide motifs in
many pieces of modern architecture in modern KM city. While the reindeer herders and hunters continue to ply their trade.
The exploitation of oil was begun in Soviet times and Yugra celebrated the extraction of the 9 billionth barrel recently. 40 years of oil camps and board walks, wooden cottages and hastily built Soviet tenements are giving way to modern construction at higher standards than ever before. Scotland's thirty years of oil extraction was also celebrated this year but the social rewards of oil riches are yet to create a rich society.

Significantly, the rising prices of oil worldwide make both of our oil deposits all the more valuable. For Scotland, like Ugra, still has at least as much again to extract as it has already. Planning of the economy is coordinated by the Autonomous Government in KM. The Russian Federation owns the firms but the determination of Governor Filipenko to transform his District with oil revenues is easily seen. His vision rests on increasing the population and the modern school, a six year old university, cutting edge hospitals and School for the Gifted Children of Siberia are all manifestations. Ugra and two other Russian provinces buck the trend to falling birth-rates.

While working cities like Surgut, with 300,000 people awaiting the style of makeover achieved in KM, which is the size of Inverness. Modern public buildings concert halls and art galleries are as much a priority as housing. I saw examples of a rural government programme at Kysych [pop. 700] a river village 100 km from the city. Indigenous people are offered a three stage grant to build wooden houses themselves. Much like the Crofter Housing Grant Scheme. The ground is a peppercorn price.
I also saw one of the outpost local hospitals with various services and a midwife maternity unit. It serves a 5,000 sq km area as does the local militia man and award winning school. Its excellent performance has won a recent grant of 800,000 roubles to buy a suite of apple macs to augment its older PCs in the classrooms. From talking with the teacher of Khanty culture there I was able to see how the government teaches comparative culture in the schools.

The Congress of Fenno Ugrian language speakers preceded the EU Russia summit in KM city in June this year. These are significant events to put this go getting district on the map.
The airport allows internal Russian flights and could well be developed to bring international tourists and businesses here. I stayed in the top room in the Well Being Hotel which housed the main players at the EU Russia summit. It is four star and comfortable. I also experienced a Russian Inn about forty kms away in the outback. It was the site of a settlement in Dobrino for exiles removed there in 1932. Now broad water meadows and birch woods are far more relaxing than the struggle for survival in the Siberian winter. The wooden hotel complex could be from a scene in Dr. Zhivago. As a tourist attraction, Ugra offers summer and winter attractions and sports plus hunting and cultural activities. Whilst Ugrian oil workers would relish the scenic variety of Scotland and our mists, castles and music. The modern city of KM is a contrast to our much older established settlements and small islands.
Talking food, Russia has a good distribution system for locally and nationally sourced fresh vegetables and fruit. The river fish are very tasty too. Mucsun is a local variety to be recommended with the omnipresent cranberry juice. Visitors here should not look for McDonald's, is isn't allowed in. In return Ugra would like organic Scots lamb, beef and seafood. But not yet deep fried mars bars.
Government in Russia is not democratic as we know it. Though how democratic Britain is a conundrum too. But social, cultural and economic development comes in many varieties here. The Yugra government supports three TV stations locally where expression is much freer than Moscow channel One. All this with their norms in an autocracy. Still, think of London's grip on BBC and ITV...

So, all in all opening doors to economic cooperation would be mutually welcome. Boosting Scottish and Ugra exports key. A partnership that shares Edinburgh's financial skills, our IT specialisms and oil know how would grid with those in Ugra under a government determined to succeed in growing its population and building a distinctive future. Whilst Scotland is on the road to independence, this distinctive Russian province has the clout to decide how its resource wealth will build prosperity. Let's drink a toast in whisky and vodka to that potential partnership.

RG 8.7.8

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