Russia Eases Stance On Arctic, But Draws A Line In The Ice

Moscow allowed for observer status for additional countries that don't border the Arctic, but will grant them virtually no voice whatsoever on policy.

Protecting the Artic Circle from those who covet its riches
Protecting the Artic Circle from those who covet its riches
Elena Chernenko

KIRUNA – This week’s two-day biannual meeting of the members of the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental organization of eight nations with Arctic borders – will go down in history not only because of the breakthrough decisions that were made, but also because of the record-breaking long and emotionally intense negotiations.

In spite of the fact that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his colleagues stayed up until the wee hours of the night on Tuesday and resumed discussions on Wednesday morning, it was not clear until the last minute whether or not Lavrov would wind up putting his signature on the council’s ultimate declaration.

The eight permanent members of the Arctic Council are: Russia, the U.S., Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland. The council discusses and coordinates economic, environmental and scientific issues regarding the Arctic. In addition to the permanent members, six European nations, nine international groups and 11 non-governmental organizations hold observer status.

The main point of contention was a proposal to increase the number of observer countries. China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy all wanted to join the Arctic club. Although these six countries do not have territory in the arctic region, they all have important interests in the region, including the possibility of hydrocarbon exploration and the establishment of commercial shipping routes.

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Photo NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Among the seven NGOs that requested observer status, the most well known is Greenpeace, whose activists held signs that read “no Arctic oil” all day outside of the town hall in Kiruna, Sweden where the council was meeting.

Moscow was originally against the expansion in the number of observers to the Arctic Council, fearing that it would make the council’s work less effective. However, after several hours of heated discussion, the council came to a consensus and, as a source from the Russian delegation said, Russia decided not to break it.

EU ban on seal hunting

As a result of this intense discussion, the six countries were granted permanent observer status, while the seven NGOs were rejected. The question as to the status of the European Union, which was seriously criticized by many countries, including Russia, will be decided at a later date. For the moment, the EU’s application as a single bloc has been denied, but it is allowed to participate in meetings for the time being.

According to a source who participated in the meeting, the fate of the EU’s application to join the Arctic Council will largely depend on how Brussels decides to resolve the issue of a 2011 European Parliament ban on seal meat and fur – a traditional and essential product for the indigenous Inuit people of the Arctic.

Additional petitions for observer status will not be considered until the next council – in two years’ time. According to our sources, Mongolia and Turkey are both planning to submit applications.

The unexpected consensus among the members of the Arctic Council can be explained largely by another important decision that was made on Wednesday. While formally satisfying the ambitions of the newcomers, Lavrov and his colleagues did everything to protect the Arctic from encroachment. With that goal in mind, Russia suggested a document outlining the role of observers to the council, which was approved.

According to the document, the observers are required to respect the sovereignty and sovereign rights of the eight countries that border the Arctic. The observers’ ability to participate in the council’s events and programs is restricted, and they have no voting rights. The only thing they will be able to do is sit and listen – they will not be able to introduce new projects or raise problems to the council.

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NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Every four years, each of the observers will be given a “grade” on their behavior. According to Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister – who chaired the meeting, accepting new countries will allow the organization to strengthen its position on the global scene.

At the same time, the members of the Arctic Council adopted the second-ever pan-Arctic, legally binding agreement regarding partnership in the case of oil spills in the Arctic. Lavrov called the agreement, “an effective instrument to protect that Arctic environment in the case of active exploitation of the opening Arctic reserves.”

According to researchers, around 13% of oil reserves and 30% of gas reserves are located underneath the Arctic Ocean.

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