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Northwest Is a Back Door To Trade With Russia

Inflation, crime, shifting legal and political climates still obstacles

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WHEN Bob Gerend was planning a potato-processing venture in the Soviet Union four years ago, he discovered the ``Ural,'' not a spud, but a rugged motorcycle with a sidecar. Eventually, the potato deal fell through. But the motorcycle has sprouted into a far better venture.

Today, Mr. Gerend is president of Ural America Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., which imports motorcycles for dealers nationwide. The small nine-employee business exemplifies the modest but growing links between the cold war's rivals, the United States and Russia.

Trade between the two countries is now balanced at around $3 billion in imports and exports, notes the US-Russia Business Council in Washington.

The Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, is becoming an important back door to commerce with the giant country that spans 11 time zones. ``Russia is part of the Pacific Rim now,'' says Margaret Niles, an attorney specializing in Russian deals for the Seattle law firm Preston, Gates, and Ellis.

Northwest companies are shipping food and consumer goods to the Russian Far East. Airlines, banks, and architectural firms are also winning new business.

Natural resources are the other big draw to this vast region that is two-thirds the size of the US. Timber companies are developing logging partnerships there. Petroleum companies are also interested in this region, making them the biggest single US investor in Russia.

The Pacific Northwest, while especially close to the Russian Far East, doesn't end its Russian ties there. Much activity is aimed at European population centers such as Moscow.

Carol Vipperman, who heads the Foundation for Russian/American Economic Cooperation in Seattle, says about 40 percent of the group's member businesses have dealings with the European side of Russia. This is true even though almost all the 160-member companies are from the Northwest. Gerend's business imports from a factory in Irbit, which is much closer to Moscow than Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East. The Boeing Company has a research center in Moscow.

All this adds up to a blossoming of two-way commerce - from almost nothing five years ago to close to $200 million this year between Washington State and Russia. The state has even set up a trade office in Vladivostok.

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