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Originally published Friday, September 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Are Russian ties a Palin priority?

In May 2007, Vladimir Yetylin, a Russian politician from the province of Chukotka, met in Anchorage with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. They talked about the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

In May 2007, Vladimir Yetylin, a Russian politician from the province of Chukotka, met in Anchorage with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. They talked about the struggles of the Arctic's native people and the possibility of Palin visiting the other side of the Bering Strait.

"She seemed very modern and forward-thinking and was open to the idea," Yetylin said in a telephone interview. "Absolutely, I think she should come."

Yetylin's invitation reflects the kind of grass-roots diplomacy that has marked Alaska-Russian relations, even in a time of growing tension between the Bush administration and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

But so far, in her first 21 months of office, Palin has balked at grabbing that opportunity, instead focusing her energies on home-front issues — raising taxes on the oil industry and backing construction of a natural-gas pipeline.

Her critics say that Palin has shied away from launching any major initiatives in Russian diplomacy despite Alaska's historic ties with Russia.

Now, as she campaigns, her understanding of Alaska and its relationship with Russia has become a Republican talking point. As GOP presidential nominee John McCain put it in a recent interview: "Alaska is right next to Russia; Sarah Palin understands that."

Russia is indeed close, with less than 60 miles separating Alaska's northwest coast from Chukotka, and less than three miles separating the Alaska island of Little Diomede from the Russia island of Big Diomede. Russia and Alaska share a window onto the Arctic — where melting ice puts them at the forefront of climate change — as well as a vast frontier for future oil production.

Her supporters say as governor, Palin has shown she has the right priorities: Alaska's future is closely tied to the further development of energy resources, including a huge natural-gas pipeline that could extend through Canada.

"We have gone through a period where most Alaska governors have been focused on those issues, but from day one, this governor, like any Alaska governor, has had to understand their neighbors," said Mead Treadwell, an Alaska Republican who chairs the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. "That is a key to a governor's success, and she does."

Treadwell notes that Palin targeted Arctic issues in a spring letter she wrote to President Bush, which urged investment in new icebreakers to patrol in seas that are increasingly open to ship traffic. Treadwell also said he had spoken to Palin about a possible trip to Russia this summer, but that effort was derailed by a special session of the state Legislature.

Patricia Eckert, a trade specialist in the governor's office, said that currently no trips are planned for Russia. "I am not aware of any plans but that doesn't mean she wouldn't."

Opportunities abound for Alaska governors to engage in Russian diplomacy, with the state host to several organizations focusing on Arctic issues. Anchorage is the seat of the Northern Forum, an 18-year-old organization that represents the leaders of regional governments in Russia, as well as Finland, Iceland and Canada, Japan, China and South Korea.

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Yet under Palin, the state government — without consultation — reduced its annual financial support to the Northern Forum to $15,000 from $75,000, according to Priscilla Wohl, the group's executive director. That forced the forum's Anchorage office to go without pay for two months.

Palin — unlike the previous administrations of Gov. Frank Murkowski and Gov. Tony Knowles — also stopped sending representatives to Northern Forum's annual meetings, including one last year for regional governors held in the heart of Russia's oil territory.

"It was an opportunity for the Alaska governor to take a delegation of business leaders to the largest oil-producing region in Russia, and she would have been shaking hands with major leaders in Russia," Wohl said.

Palin grew up in an Alaska still frozen in the Cold War era, when virtually all contacts were severed between the state and Russia — the Bering Strait bristling with armaments and troops. Even Yup'ik Eskimo, whose kin populated both sides of the strait, lost contact with one another.

But by the time Palin was in her mid-20s, the glasnost polices of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were helping to melt that ice curtain, and in 1988 an Alaska Airlines plane landed in the Chukotka port city Provideniya, a "Friendship Flight" that helped renew contacts between Russia and Alaska.

In the decade that followed, thousands of Alaskans — students, teachers, politicians, scientists, businesspeople and tourists — traveled to Chukotka and other Russian provinces.

There was a flow of Russians to Alaska, some of whom came to settle. In Wasilla, for example, where Palin was mayor, 7 percent of the high-school student body was of Russian and Ukrainian descent in 2007, according to Cherie Koss, a high-school teacher, in an interview that year with The Frontiersman, a local newspaper.

Since the Friendship Flight, there have been setbacks — particularly on the business front as many joint ventures foundered amid the confusion and corruption that enveloped the new Russia.

The difficulties of doing business was an important factor in an Alaska Airlines decision in 1998 to stop flights between Anchorage and five Far East cities. However, Nome-based Bering Air continues to fly to Chukotka, and a Russian airline this year started up service between Vladivostok and Anchorage.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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