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#5 - JRL 2007-224 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
October 29, 2007
The Arctic: Rivalry or Cooperation?
Can Russia Work with its Partners in the "Northern Dimension"

Comment by Yury Deryabin

Yury Deryabin is the head of the Center of Northern Europe at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He also served as Russia's first ambassador to Finland (1992-96).

A new situation has arisen in the north of Europe that could eventually trigger a host of international disagreements. Besides directly affecting the countries in the region, it is capable of complicating relations between Russia and the United States, Canada, the European Union, and NATO. Russia's renewed activity on the Arctic continental shelf is the apparent cause of all this commotion. Until recently, the Arctic shelf belonged to no one, yet it reputedly contains one quarter of the world's oil-and-gas resources. Additionally, the Northwest Passage, the shortest route for ocean shipments between Northern Europe, Northeast Asia and the west coast of North America, traverses this territory.

After a Russian scientific expedition last August, it became possible to argue that the underwater Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges were geological extensions of the Siberian continental shelf. If true, this would allow Russia to claim up to 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic shelf and extend its 200-mile offshore zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is expected that the country will file an official claim to the appropriate UN commission in 2009.

Almost immediately, other countries started to challenge Russia's claims. While the Arctic countries - the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway - were obviously the most interested, other northern European countries such as Sweden, Iceland and Finland and the UK, as well as such unlikely contenders as China and Japan showed concern over the claims.

No consensus has been reached so far. Perhaps the main objective shared by all the contenders is to keep Russia from strengthening its position in the Arctic, while furthering their own political and economic interests. Most Western countries will strive to frustrate Russia's aspirations, since they would further restrict Western companies from the yet-untapped Arctic resources. The West will gain more from internationalization than from dividing the territory into sectors. Western states might attempt to coordinate their positions in international organizations such as the European Union or the UN, which will eventually decide on the issue. Russian President, Vladimir Putin has already stated that the problem of the Arctic shelf must be solved in full accordance with international law.

Until recently, all issues pertaining to the development of the Arctic, especially the development of Russia's Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, were addressed outside of the framework of international cooperation. This was happening despite this unique region's enormous economic potential, which cannot be effectively utilized outside of the European and trans-Atlantic contexts. Needless to say, it is impossible to solve the region's numerous ecological and social problems without the full involvement of the international community.

This state of affairs was not surprising during the Soviet period, but relations between East and West have sufficiently improved during the last decade, while radical socio-economic changes in Russia have prepared the ground for tighter international cooperation. This is also true for the Arctic region, whose significance both for Europe and the whole world is hard to overestimate.

By and large, the Arctic, with its opportunities and problems, remains on the periphery of European cooperation. It is only a marginal issue on the EU agenda, but it would be reasonable to learn from the experience of those countries that directly control Arctic territories. They base their policies on several principles, including the following: the state remains the chief regulator of the economy of northern territories; new industries dealing with the extraction and processing of raw materials are set up, while regional economies are diversified thanks to the modernization of the service sector; special regional credit funds are instituted, with one of their functions specifically to address potential crises; the involvement of large corporations, both private and state-owned, is encouraged; tax benefits are extended to businesses operating in the north; state per capita subsidies are increased; and the state consistently addresses the problems of native populations.

All in all, the Arctic dimension should become one of Russia's priority concerns in the years to come. The country's northern regions will only welcome increased involvement from the federal authorities. It is imperative that central and regional authorities coordinate their efforts, taking into account the special needs and problems that the north is currently facing, as well as its great significance for the development of Russia as a whole. It is unfortunate that a federal program for the development of the Russian North has not been explicitly formulated. It is also unacceptable that the State Committee of the North (Goskomsever) is not part of the structure of the current government.

The Russian Federation has not yet clearly formulated its regional policy, which should take into account differences between the country's numerous federal constituencies. The relevant legislation is at present missing.

When addressing the issue of the Arctic, Russia should rely more actively on its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EU, engaging in direct dialogue with the European Council, its executive bodies and programs. For example, Canada, in its relations with the European Union, actively promotes closer cooperation in the Arctic. The United States has also shown considerable interest in working together with the EU on Arctic issues.

An idea has been voiced on a number of occasions to set up a university network in the Arctic region in order to facilitate cooperation between northern scientific centers. In its bilateral relations with its "Northern Dimension" partners, Russia should put forward specific propositions that would enhance understanding and stimulate cooperation. Its initiatives should also involve the United States, Canada, and other countries with stated interests in the region.