Vienna, October 12 –Moscow’s leading oceanographer is calling for dividing the seabed of the Arctic Ocean among the five countries that border it for economic exploitation in much the same way that the Russian Federation has proposed sharing out the territory under the Caspian Sea.
Acknowledging that he is not a specialist in international law, Academician Yuri Leonov said this week that suggestions by some that the entire floor of the Arctic basin is part of Russia’s continental shelf and thus should belong to Russia alone are exaggerated (http://www.russ.ru/layout/set/print//culture/besedy/ya_schitayu_chto_severniy_ledovityi_okean_mozhno_delite_kak_kaspisskoe_more).
Those suggestions, which were sparked by coverage of Russian polar expeditions last summer and by the reaction of the other polar powers – the United States, Canada, Denmark (which owns Greenland), and Norway – to Russia’s role there, fail to take into account that the situation is actually far more complicated, Leonov argues.
The existing continental shelf in the Arctic, as well as the paleo-shelf that exists in portions of it and the Arctic depths, cannot be simply assigned to the Russian Federation or any other country, he says. And until recent attention to the region and the possibility that its immense natural resources could be recovered, no one had suggested otherwise.
The Soviet Union in the 1920s unilaterally claimed a pie-shaped segment of the Arctic bounded by the northern sea border of the USSR and two meridians extending from the Kola Peninsula and the Bering Straits to the pole, but no other country or group of countries has explicitly acknowledged that claim as legitimate.
Nevertheless, Leonov says, he “does not see any reason” for the Russian government to back away from that claim of an economic exclusion zone. Instead, he argues, the international community should extend the same spatial designations to the four other Arctic powers, with each getting a pie-shaped piece of the region.
Leonov stresses that this proposal is only his personal view, but his closeness to government officials interested in polar questions – including, most prominently, Artur Chilingarov, the vice speaker of the Duma – suggests that his proposal probably already has significant support in the bureaucracy.
However, even if Moscow does go ahead with this idea, the Russian government will not find it easy to secure the agreement of the others -- especially as global warming and new technologies combine to make more of the Arctic accessible for economic exploitation. Leonov admits as much when he points to the Caspian Sea as a model.
After all, the littoral states involved there after the collapse of the USSR multiplied their number and thus voided earlier Soviet-Iranian arrangements have been talking about how to “divide” the Caspian for most of the time since 1991 – and they have not been able to reach an agreement.
Meanwhile, yet another group has emerged to challenge any simple division of the Arctic: the peoples of that region. In addition to the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and the Northern Forum that unite indigenous groups from around Arctic Sea, a new and potentially more significant body is emerging in the Russian Federation itself.
On Wednesday, all the subjects of the Russian Federation in the Far North signed an agreement to cooperate in working to defend their interests and those of their populations legislatively lest their distance from the center lead Moscow to conclude it can continue to ignore them (http://www.raipon.ru, October 11).
And as readers of Edward Topol’s classic futurist novel Red Snow will remember, should the peoples of this region finally decide to take the defense of their interests into their own hands, there is potentially a great deal more they can do to protect themselves than many in Moscow or elsewhere currently think.