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“Seven partners” vs Russia: tough competition at “Arctic Frontiers”

Kristina Persson, Alexander Stubb, and Erna Solberg. Photo: barentsobserver.com

The 10th “Arctic Frontiers” conference finished its work in the world’s “Arctic capital,” Tromso, on Jan 29, 2016. It was a forum of concerned individuals and organizations on research and development strategies in the Arctic. Norway’s leading role here is based on its economic maturity and NATO affiliation. Before the conference Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said that despite declining fuel prices, the Norwegian economy was thriving in 2015. The key topic of the conference was “Industry and Environment” but its political session focused on politics and security.

This year's “Arctic Frontiers” conference has been the biggest so far. It involved over 1,400 delegates from 29 countries and was attended by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, Swedish Strategic Development Minister Kristina Persson, all the Norwegian ministers having anything to do with the Arctic and some other Scandinavian ministers.

One of the key guests was Admiral Robert J. Papp, the US State Department's Special Representative for the Arctic. Presently, the United States is chairing the Arctic Council, a forum comprising eight Arctic states, including Russia. Papp’s presence confirmed that the Arctic is among the United States’ priorities. He stressed the role of the Arctic Council and confirmed the Americans’ plans to build new icebreakers and to improve navigation in the Arctic.

Russia was represented by Ambassador to the Arctic Council Vladimir Barbin, Head of the International Cooperation Department of the Natural Resources Ministry Nuritdin Inamov, public officials from Russia’s Arctic regions and Arctic researchers.

On the first day of the conference Shared Voices Magazine published Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s “International Cooperation for Arctic Prosperity” article. According to Lavrov, “today, the Arctic is a region with well established fruitful interaction that is progressively developing despite the international complexities. “Effective solutions for preserving the unique Arctic environment, improving the well-being of the inhabitants of the Far North, including that of the indigenous peoples, ensuring the responsible use of rich natural resources for the benefit of all Arctic States can be, apparently, found only on the basis of true partnership,” Lavrov said.

The Russian foreign minister refrained from mentioning the problems Russia is facing in the Arctic. He did not mention the asymmetric confrontation existing in the region – when Russia is confronted by a US-led club of the world’s richest countries. Nor did he mention the problems Russian regions are facing in the framework of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, where cultural contacts have been replaced with economic ties. And the most important fact missing in Lavrov’s article is that all the seven members of the Arctic Council are applying sanctions against Russia. So, the Russians have no friends in the Council – only “partners,” as Lavrov put it. The Russian foreign minister did not use words like “competition” or “national interests” though they better fit the real situation in the Arctic.

The Russian delegates were also as much toothless. Speaking at the political session were Head of the International Cooperation Department of the Natural Resources Ministry Nuritdin Inamov and Deputy Principal of the European University at St. Petersburg Nikita Lomagin.

On the one hand, it might seem that by sending such a delegation Russia sought to show that it had no much interest in the Tromso conference. On the other hand, Lomagin is not an expert on the Arctic. But why didn’t we send experts to Tromso? The European University at St. Petersburg has been established under a Soros program and Lomagin is well known as one of the first in Russia to organize grant programs in the humanitarian sector. So, it was not a coincidence that most of the Russian delegates were students and young researchers. Nor was it a surprise to see Marina Kalinina, from the Northern (Arctic) Federal University – one of the key promoters of Norwegian training projects in Arkhangelsk.

The conference has shown once again what priorities Norway has in the Barents Sea. One of them is the problem of “indigenous peoples,” i.e. the people living in Arctic territories occupied by other nations. President of the so-called Sami Parliament of Norway Aili Keskitalo said that the history of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic was robbery and exploitation for the sake of economic development. She did not specify who she meant. She said that the indigenous Arctic peoples were vulnerable to climatic changes, so, they need deeper involvement in political processes. “We the indigenous peoples must participate when decisions impacting our regions are taken. We need to have a key role,” Keskitalo said.

In Jan 2016, the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat moved to Tromso. So, it is from there that policies on the indigenous Arctic peoples will now be coordinated. The other structure dealing with the problems of Russia-based indigenous Arctic peoples is the Working Group of Indigenous Peoples in the Barents Region. These two Norwegian organizations use grant projects to influence political, economic and cultural process among the indigenous peoples living in Russia. The Russians are trying to limit this influence. On Nov 27, 2015, Russia’s Justice Ministry termed the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North as a “foreign agent“ and later fined it 300,000 RUR for refusing it register as such. In Sept 2015, the Nenets organization “Yasavey Manzara” was recognized as a “foreign agent.” So, we can see that in this field we have no fair partnership with the Norwegians.

The other vital problem for Russia here is that the Arctic regions are poorly controlled by Moscow and are almost free in their contacts with their “partners” – the Norwegians, the Swedes and the Finns. In fact, they are acting as if there is no confrontation between Russia and the West. During the conference Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said that the key political players in the Arctic are local regional authorities. If so, what role Moscow should have here if the Norwegians, the Swedes and the Finns keep persuading their partners from Russian Arctic regions that they can be free in controlling their resources and are supplying them with Russian experts trained at Norwegian universities. As a result, there are people in the Russian Arctic who believe that in that region to get a license and plots for transnational corporations is even easier than it is in Africa. Of course, we do not need confrontation in the Arctic, but we cannot but admit that Russia is facing rivalry and lack of partnership there.

Dmitry Semushin, editor of EADaily’s European Bureau

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