Wednesday May 24, 2017

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Two years, one Arctic

Council embraces Russia but puts new observers on hold

US assumes Arctic chairmanship during summit that proved longer on content than on drama
All that’s left is the farewell whack (Photo: DFATD/MAECD)

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Today’s meeting of (mostly) foreign ministers from the Arctic states had been keenly anticipated for two reasons: how much of a cold shoulder would Russia be given, and which non-Arctic states would be admitted as observers

By the time the biennial Arctic Council ministerial meeting, being held this year in Iqaluit, Nunavut, drew to a close, Moscow’s emissary appeared to be no worse for the wear, despite a mild dressing down by the Canadian hosts, and the issue of observers had been postponed until at least 2017.

That left most of the excitement reserved for America’s presentation of its ‘One Arctic’ strategy for its two-year chairmanship. As expected, it will focus heavily on traditional Arctic Council issues, like global warming and renewable energy, but only less so on the human aspects the Canadian chairmanship had prioritised.

SEE RELATED: The admiral who went into the cold

Though anti-climactic as far as summitry goes, the alternative would have been worse.

As relations between Russia and the West have hit a rocky patch over the past year, Arctic wonks have consistently sought to divine whether the typically placid relations in the Arctic Council were suffering as a result. A decision by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, not to attend – officially due to a busy schedule – only added to suspicions  that they were.

There had led to speculation, particularly among the media, that the meeting was ripe for a round of Moscow bashing. That read was apparently confirmed earlier in the week, when it was reported that Leona Aglukkak, the Canadian chair, would use the forum to censure Moscow over its involvement in Ukraine. A criticism was made, but behind closed doors, Ms Aglukkak confirmed after the meeting.

Mr Lavrov’s absence, meanwhile, was indeed singled out by the foreign ministers representing the other Arctic states, as well as the leaders of indigenous groups, but it was mostly to underscore the value they put on his long-standing contributions to Arctic relations, and to express regret that he did not come.

His replacement in Iqaluit, Sergei Donskoi, the natural resources and environment minister, also took a conciliatory line, re-assuring the gathering that stability and co-operation ought to remain a mainstay of the council. “There is no room for conflict and confrontation,” he said.

SEE RELATED: Power to the council

When it came to the council’s other marquee topic, a no-decision was the best the eight states could agree to, arguing that the observer system needs to be revamped before more can be let in. That leaves hopefuls (said to be Switzerland, Mongolia and Turkey, as well as a handful of NGOs and lobby groups) to wait until the next ministerial before they can be considered. 

The EU also wants its status in the Arctic upgraded, but the union, again this year, found itself blocked from becoming a full-fledged observer. There is widespread agreement on the council that this should happen, despite a European ban on seal products that Inuit hunters say is ruinous to local economies.

That no action was taken led to murmuring that it was Moscow that had vetoed any dicussion of observer status, most likely over its dissatisfaction with sanctions imposed last summer.

However, the question of what observers should do is a real issue for member states and permanent participants, which represent indigenous groups. Citing the need to reform the observer system might have been a way to paper over differences about the EU, but the need to do so had been mulled as a possible aim of the American chairmanship.

With more outside groups expressing an in interest in the region, it is becoming ever more necessary to define ‘one’.