The impact caused by Russia’s attack on Ukraine extends into the Arctic. In particular, the activities of the Arctic Council, which is currently still presided over by Russia and until then seemed to be crisis-proof, have since been put on hold. However, given the urgent problems plaguing the far north and its residents, hardly anyone wants the council to continue to pause. Admittedly, Norway, which will assume the presidency of the Council on May 11, has presented its strategy on which aspects the Council will focus on over the next two years. But urgent questions remain.
More protection of Arctic habitats and all that lives there from pollution, waste, noise and excessive economic exploitation, while at the same time making the economic development of the Arctic even more sustainable by focusing on better and “greener” technologies, especially in shipping; further empowering Arctic indigenous peoples and their rights, creating better education, food and work opportunities, and improve the health system and involving them more in decision-making; all of these are points that Norway has listed in its Arctic Council strategy for the next two years and on which the focus will be placed. What is particularly exciting is that several times in the document it is pointed out how much emphasis will be placed on cooperation in the implementation, whether it is on protecting biodiversity, shipping safety, climate protection, economic development or improving the situation of Arctic inhabitants.
Collaboration has always been a strength of the Arctic Council since its inception. For it was known that the challenges facing the Arctic and its inhabitants could only be met by working together. “One Arctic” was the magic word once coined by Mikhail Gorbachev. But since February 24, 2022, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that cooperation has paused at all levels, and fears that the council would “die” have been frequently expressed. Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, who personally operned the presentation of Norway’s strategy, left no doubt about the importance of the Arctic Council. “For a quarter of a century, the Arctic Council has had great diplomatic importance. And in the turbulent times we now find ourselves in, we need the Arctic Council,” she said in her presentation speech. And yet, there was no indication in either the speech or the strategy paper as to how the Council will continue its work and how Norway intends to achieve its important goals. At least Russia has now also stated that it considers the Arctic Council to be an significant platform for cooperation. This is reported by the Norwegian news platform High North News.
But also the question about the procedure for handing over the presidency actually remained officially unanswered on this Tuesday. This question has been occupying the diplomats of the Council countries for some time. At the end of January, Russia had invited the other Arctic Council foreign ministers to hold the official handover of the presidency at a direct meeting in Salekhard in the Yamal-Nenets region on May 11, but this was promptly rejected by Norway and the rest of the states. Nevertheless, the diplomatic wheels continued to turn in the background and attempts were made to find a solution based on the lowest common denominator. Norwegian Arctic Ambassador Morten Høglund indicated to the media that a meeting would be held and that he would participate virtually. He also stated that the most important thing for Norway is that the Arctic Council “survive” because it is the most important platform in the Arctic when it comes to meeting the challenges. The importance of the Arctic Council is also seen by Russia, which speaks of a “significant cooperation format.”
And Anniken Huitfeldt also stressed the importance during her opening speech. Referring to Fridtjof Nansen, who had been Norway’s first ambassador to London, among many other positions, she explained, “Nansen was no ordinary diplomat. He hated the regular diplomatic work and protocol. But he saw what was important. And we must do the same.” And what is important for Norway is clear in the strategy paper: to address the challenges the Arctic is facing for more than just the next two years and which will ultimately affect everyone in the far north, with research and collaboration. “It is in this spirit that we are now preparing to take over the leadership. It will be the most important thing in the council’s history,” Anniken Huitfeldt concluded. This means that an orderly handover is very likely.
But what comes after that officially remains as dark as the polar night.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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