ANCHORAGE -- Rich and restless, at odds with nagging, distracted parents, the state of Alaska and the Soviet Far East act like two dreamy teenagers in an Arctic flirtation. After two years of exchanging glances, they remain interested in each other but unsure whether they are capable of a lasting commitment.
Despite political and economic turmoil in Moscow and war fever in Washington, these two territories separated by just a few miles of frigid ocean have surprised their distant political masters by moving with the inbred confidence of people surrounded by vast mineral, forest and ocean resources.
"The people of the Soviet Far East are very progressive, by and large," said Douglas Versteeg, vice president of Alaska Airlines, whose company is about to launch the first regular transpacific routes to the Soviet Union in June.
"They have timber reserves, fishing, gold, gems, oil and gas," said David Cannon, an American trader enthusiastic about his dealings with several popular and innovative Soviet Far East politicians.
American visitors to the Magadan region across the Bering Strait and the Khabarovsk region farther south see their Soviet hosts eating well while food shelves in Moscow far to the west are empty. The Soviet territory has no major ethnic strife and, as part of the Russian Republic, does have many local leaders with close ties to reformist Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Soviet visitors to Nome and Anchorage in turn find American business executives enjoying a still-healthy economy aided by recent oil price increases. Many Alaskans appear willing to take risks with erratic Soviet regulations and a Soviet currency useless beyond Soviet borders.
Consider, for instance, the case of Earl Romans, owner of Alaskan Battery Enterprises Inc. in Fairbanks. He began producing vehicle batteries with a Soviet partner in Magadan, whereupon the KGB grabbed his first shipment overseas as contraband.
Romans is back in Magadan this week asking the Soviet intelligence agency to alter its designation of the batteries as war materiel. "He's going to keep with it," said Steve Best, Romans's operations manager in Fairbanks, "and he figures when you get the first shipment through, then things will be okay."
Interest in economic, social and scientific exchanges across the Bering Strait blossomed in late 1987 with an exchange of messages between Juneau and the city of Khabarovsk more than 3,300 miles away. The idea of reviving some of the 19th century closeness when this was Russian territory led to a flurry of visits and a media extravaganza, the Nome to Provideniya Friendship Flight of June 1988.
Like all American love feasts with socialist countries, the Alaska-Soviet Far East relationship since has bogged down in bureaucratic wrangling, misunderstood rules, language gaps and resistance from distant national capitals with different priorities.
The Soviet Far East has new governors who share Yeltsin's reformist views but must deal with less imaginative bureaucrats in Moscow and foot-dragging officials on their own staffs. "It is not as optimistic as it once was," said Glenda Clark, special staff assistant with the Alaska governor's Office of International Trade (OIT).
The OIT's most recent assessment said "Alaskans will need to keep their expectations of Soviet Alaskan ventures low for the short term." It said the Soviets would have to do something about their unstable, nonconvertible currency, the ruble, which "makes many investors gun shy" although "many Alaskans have thought up clever ways of bartering for their investment payment."
Among the most creative has been Doug Drum of Indian Valley Meats, whose complex three-corner trade was reported in the newsletter of the University of Alaska's Alaska Center for International Business.
Drum's Soviet-based reindeer sausage factory has branched into poultry, pasta and ice cream. He has found a way to earn hard currency by selling reindeer horns, a residue of the sausage plant, to South Korea where they are ground into powder and savored for their alleged aphrodisiac effect on men.
The lack of hard currency leads to a habitual grasping by Soviets in negotiations. Aeroflot, the state airline, "tries to get all the hard dollars out of you they can," said Ron Sheardown, an Anchorage gold-mining entrepreneur involved in several Soviet negotiations.
Initial exchanges, he said, were on a "you pay, we pay" basis, with hosts paying foreign visitors' expenses. Now the Soviets ask for what Sheardown called a "you pay, you pay" arrangement.
The most active Alaskan traders seem willing to persevere. Cannon said he had to cancel a trade-delegation trip in December when "a directive came from Moscow that doubled the effective cost of the charter flight." But he plans to leave with another delegation Friday for Sakhalin Island, where the local reformist governor, Valentin Fyodorov, waits to do more business with his new American friends.
Sakhalin has potential offshore oil reserves, the makings of a tourist market and a governor who exemplifies the Soviet Far East's streak of independence and impatience with old rules, even if obstacles remain.
At a welcoming meeting, Fyodorov pointed to an unsmiling line of men nearby and told his guests: "I want you to look to your right over here. These are the people you have to fight. They are my deputies. They cause all the problems."