Vienna, September 23 – The Arctic is heating up as a political issue both within the Russian Federation and between Moscow and other powers interested in exploiting the polar region, twin developments that are likely to feed on one another possibly in dramatic ways.
Last week, both these trends were very much on public view. On the one hand, the political leaders of Russia’s northern territories took the unprecedented step of forming a new inter-regional organization to force Moscow to live up to its promises to their populations (http://yanao.ru/3/2007/9/21/12230/).
And on the other, the Russian Natural Resources Ministry took the next step in the process of declaring much of the Arctic part of Russia’s economic exclusion zone, a move that has already prompted Denmark, Norway, Canada and the United States to seek a new round of talks on the Arctic (http://www.regions.ru/news/2098621/).
On September 20, the leaders of the legislative assemblies of Russia’s northern regions, together with representatives of the regional political councils of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party met in Salekhard to discuss what they could do to get Moscow to address their problems.
Those assembled noted that since April 2004, when a document on “The Basic Directions of State Policy in Relation to the Northern Territories of Russia” was adopted and President Vladimir Putin issued corresponding directives, Moscow has not kept its promises.
According to the participants, Moscow since that time has not developed the promised “Strategy for the Development of the North, nor has it provided the necessary funds for the social-economic development of northern regions, including the numerically small indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East.
In order to move things forward, the parliamentarians and politicians assembled last week decided to issue an appeal for the formation within the federal government of a special state bureaucracy responsible for state policy in this area, for expanded funding of programs in their regions, and for a new analysis of legislation affecting the North.
But in addition to these declarations, those assembled signed an agreement calling for cooperation among the legislative organs of those subjects of the Russian Federation located in the Far North and adjacent areas in order to be in a position to develop a common program and to lobby on behalf of the North in Moscow.
In the past, these regional officials have been hampered by the small size of their populations, the divisions among these groups, and Moscow’s ability to ignore them, but now things may be changing, less because of events within Russia but because of Moscow’s expansive claims on the Arctic Sea floor.
Over the course of the last year, the Russian government has organized a series of expeditions to the Arctic intended to promise that a large segment of the seabed there is in fact part of the continental shelf of Russia and therefore part of its economic exclusion zone.
In August, some Russian scientists argued that this claim had been proved, but other Moscow scholars argued that Denmark (because of Greenland) and Norway could make equally justified claims, a debate that suggested Moscow might go slow on pushing its claims (for details, see http://www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=173331).
Last Thursday, however, and on the very day of the Salekhard meeting, the Natural Resources Ministry of the Russian Federation issued a press release indicating that the Russian government considers the Russian claim fully justified and will register it internationally by the end of the year.
Not surprisingly, given the problematic nature of such claims and the growing importance of the Arctic economically given both global warming and oil and gas finds there, other Arctic powers are already contesting the Russian claims and appear set to do even more.
After the Russian side launched its expeditions to the Arctic, both Canada and the United States did likewise. And now the Danish government has proposed via a diplomatic note to Russia, the U.S., Canada and Norway an international conference to discuss the issues the Russian claim raises.
The Danish Foreign Ministry noted that there are “a large number of unresolved disputes in the Far North” and that existing international law on the seabeds may need to be developed in order to resolve them, a process that will require broad consultations among all interested parties.
Given the economic prize that the Arctic now represents, both Russian and international media are certain to focus on all- such claims, counterclaims and meetings. And it is almost certain that the numerically small peoples of the North within Russia will be using that attention to press their claims as well.