VLADIMIR NIKOLAEVICH VASILIEV:
Head of the Department for External Relations of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)
- The Arctic today is of great interest to the whole world. The colossal volume of natural resources, the impact on planet’s climate, the transport and logistical potential of the Arctic Ocean, maritime issues in high latitudes - all this explains why such close attention to this region is manifested not only by countries located in the circumpolar zone. At the same time a military presence is increasing in the region. Competition or international cooperation - which approach will win? What is participation of Sakha Republic in these matters?
You are right, the Arctic today is on the focus of all mankind due to the factors listed by you, and also because it is a strategically important region - the most developed countries with huge potential are located around the Arctic Ocean and each of them aspires not only to take suitable niches , but also to organize interaction on issues that can not be solved by a single country. For example, the preservation of extremely vulnerable global ecosystem of the Arctic is possible with the unification of efforts not only of all Arctic countries, but also by understanding of issues by all countries participating in the study or development of the Arctic territories to some extent. The competition is high: this is evidenced by the rapid growth of activity in the Arctic Council, the emergence of large sites for a comprehensive discussion of the development of the Arctic (Arctic Circle in Iceland, Arctic Frontiers in Norway, Arctic Encounter in the US, Arctic Energy Summit, Arctic Science Week, etc.). This year, a permanent Arctic forum has been established in Russia. The Forum “The Arctic - Territory of Dialogue”, held earlier in different cities, received a permanent residence in Arkhangelsk and the status of the main site for the Arctic in Russia.
The queue of countries and organizations wishing to gain access to the Arctic Council is growing, and the Council really pondered what to do next: to increase the number of observers or to find other forms of cooperation. But interestingly, the creation of new organizations of the Arctic orientation has practically ceased. Over the past 20 years, no significant international organization has been established, which has an active participation in Arctic cooperation in its agenda. This does not mean that all niches are closed. Most likely, the fact is that the basic structure of international cooperation has been created and it is necessary at this stage to streamline the activities of the existing elements of the system.
I do not think that competition and cooperation are mutually exclusive factors. On the contrary, they complement each other. Rivalry, in any case, will be between all countries wishing to take advantageous positions in the Arctic and at the same time, everyone understands that only cooperation enables each side to take its place in the common system of interaction. There are some concerns about the possible militarization of the Arctic, but the likelihood of military conflicts is extremely low, since all countries around the Arctic basin understand that the Arctic Ocean should be free of military presence. If countries create some small bases, they are aimed at preventing various kinds of threats and ensuring security in the region as a whole.
Russia is the largest Arctic country, and the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) is the largest Arctic region. This alone makes our republic one of the key players in the Arctic space. Of course, we are participating in Arctic cooperation, with close coordination of all actions with the federal center, in a single channel of the country's foreign policy activities. Specialists of the Sakha Republic have become regular participants in the main Arctic forums, they also host various events. The republic hosted meetings of the Arctic Council and its working groups, the Congress of World Reindeer Herders, summits on climate change, numerous events of the Northern Forum. This year Yakutsk hosted its fifth conference on the development of renewable energy in the Far East, where an important role is given to the issues of energy supply of the Arctic zone.
- Tell us about international cooperation of Sakha Republic with international organizations in the Arctic.
Since the establishment of the republic in a new capacity after the collapse of the USSR, Yakutia has shown itself as an active participant in international cooperation, first of all, establishing productive cooperation with UNESCO. Over 25 years of cooperation with UNESCO, a large number of projects have been implemented in the field of education, culture, ecology, science, support of indigenous small-numbered peoples and this work is growing every year. During the visit of Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, on July 6-8, 2017, the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) signed the next Joint Communiqué on Supporting New Initiatives in Yakutia, including in the Arctic: Inclusion of the Kytalyk Resource Reserve (Allaikhovsky district) in the UNESCO Network of Biosphere Reserves, the creation of the International Arctic School, the construction of the first stage of which has already begun.
Since 1993, the Republic has been the most active member of the Northern Forum, an observer in the Arctic Council, twice chairing (1997-2001, 2011-2015) and has made a significant contribution to the preservation and strengthening of this organization. Through the Northern Forum, the republic has access to the projects of working groups of the Arctic Council. Representatives of Yakutia regularly participate in meetings of the Arctic Council. Time to time, they are involved as experts in the projects of this organization. The main obstacle, nevertheless, is a language barrier. All work in the project groups, meetings of the Arctic Council is in English, and our middle-aged and older specialists with relevant experience and knowledge, mostly do not speak foreign languages. The younger generation no longer has such obstacles, but the lack of experience does not allow them to yet qualify for the level of experts. Undoubtedly, over time the situation will change radically, and we hope that our experts will actively participate in the activities of various international organizations in the foreseeable future. Young people should be actively involved in the work of the Network of Young Specialists in polar disciplines.
All Arctic countries have signed the Agreement on Scientific Cooperation this year, which opens up broad opportunities for implementing meaningful joint projects and it would be nice to introduce a scientific component into the Program for the Integrated Development of the Arctic Territories of the Republic, taking into account the development of international cooperation in this field. Here we have a good reserve and potential: practically all higher educational institutions, some colleges of Yakutia are members of the University of the Arctic, which includes more than 200 universities in all Arctic countries.
- In which issues regarding the Arctic the foreign states and other subjects of Russia are more concerned (interested)?
The main priority for all is the preservation of the environment, Arctic biodiversity, climate change issues. An international network of Arctic observatories (one located in Tiksi) has been established, which monitor almost all environmental indicators. Currently, there is a widespread retreat of the sea coasts, the melting of permafrost, an advance of forest and steppe vegetation to the north. The increase in air temperature opens up wide opportunities for the development of natural resources and navigation, therefore safety issues in the extraction of minerals, their transportation by sea also occupy a significant place in the negotiation process. Another important project in the Russian Arctic is the elimination of the accumulated damage in the form of a huge amount of scrap metal. Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug was particularly successful in this matter, but a large amount of work is being done in the Sakha Republic to clean up the Arctic territories. Adoption of the federal integrated program for the development of the Arctic will allow to regulate all work in this region.
Every country, every region, of course, have their own specific interests in the Arctic. For example, Alaska and Chukotka have a common quota for the production of whales, and they actively interact in this area. All-the-year-round monitoring of populations of polar bears that can lose habitat due to active melting of ice is carried out and many countries participate in such projects. Iceland, Greenland, Norway are quite dependent on marine fishing and changing the migration routes for a number of fish species (cod, herring) and are of great concern. Recently published Science magazine article by an international group of scientists that more than 25% of animal species in the world have changed migration routes and global redistribution of biodiversity is under way has caused a huge response and it seems to me that for more detailed studies, most countries will have to allocate serious financial resources. Scientific circles of Yakutia should pay special attention to this and develop interdisciplinary comprehensive scientific programs for studying the changes in the fauna and flora of the republic.
- Should the Arctic be protected by conservation or should it be given to industrial extraction of oil and gas, diamonds?
In this matter, as in any other, it is necessary to strike the balance. The hydrocarbon reserves in the Arctic are huge and humanity, at some point of its development will have to start developing deposits in this region. In the western sector of the Russian Arctic, there is active extraction of gas, oil and other minerals mainly in the mainland, geological prospecting works are carried out in the shelf zone. The first wells were drilled by Rosneft in the Laptev Sea. To the west of Khatanga, intensive maritime traffic has began.
But all this activity should be adjusted in such a way as not to cause significant damage to the environment, marine, river, tundra ecosystems. In no way should the interests of the indigenous population suffer. The creation of a network of specially protected natural areas allows regulating the activities of industrial companies and minimizing the invasion of industry. Almost the entire coast of the Yakutian Arctic is included in this network, but the statuses of the protected areas are different: from the municipal reserves to the federal reserve Ust-Lensky. Accordingly, the guard mode also differs. In addition, before starting any anthropogenic activity, it is necessary to thoroughly survey the territories of probable developments, i.e. science must go ahead. Safe technologies for mining, fighting oil spills, eliminating pollution in the Arctic zone have not yet been fully developed. Therefore, the development of the Arctic, which inevitably must develop gradually taking into account all factors. Now there are active searches of alternative energy sources in the world, and if a worthy replacement for hydrocarbons is found, the development of their deposits in the Arctic can be postponed indefinitely, which will provide an excellent opportunity for its harmonious development. The development of ecological, cultural, cruise tourism will save not only nature, but also develop new nature-conserving sectors of the economy.
- At the same time, many issues have not been solved. It a lack of experts (teachers, doctors etc.) in the Arctic, issues regarding logistics and transport remain unsolved, housing, utilities and energy issues of republic’s Arctic districts shake pages of the media. In your opinion, in which direction should we work, what is the involvement of the Department of External Relations in solving these issues?
We remember the prosperity of the Arctic during the USSR, largely due to the activities of the Northern Sea Route. It is necessary to restore the maritime infrastructure for the resumption of navigation along the entire length of the Northern Sea Route, not only for the purpose of exporting the minerals extracted, but also for supporting traditional economic sectors: reindeer herding, fishing, hunting; full-fledged development of various types of tourism. For this, it is necessary to equip the airports with a reduction in their maintenance costs (this requires close cooperation with the federal center to improve legislation, regulations, etc.); widened use of small aircrafts, hydroplanes; creation of a tourist infrastructure: the construction of fairly simple but comfortable guest houses, canteens, camping sites; wide introduction of alternative energy sources. In the village of Chersky the Arctic College is successfully operating and it would be advisable to gradually expand specialties in the field of tourism, service and energy. A similar institution could be created in Tiksi.
It's no secret that a large number of local people are employed in the mammoth business. Moreover, tusks, the remains of fossil mammoth fauna are extracted by a barbaric method, for the most part this business is not regulated. It is necessary to streamline, legalize and centralize the entire process. Every year, attention to this problem is increasing and it's time to focus on it.
Five coastal municipal districts of Yakutia belong to the border zone, accordingly, tourists, researchers, specialists from other regions and countries should receive special permits to enter and carry out any activity. It would be nice to facilitate the access regime, limiting the entry not to the entire territory of the municipality, but, say, to certain areas that have a special regime. It would be advisable not to issue passes for tourism purposes, they could simply be marked on arrival at the border zone, because the process of issuing permits takes at least 60 days, which severely limits the development of tourism in these areas. Passes and permits for various activities could be kept for a certain categories: researchers, company employees, etc.
The State Committee for Arctic Affairs operates in the republic, the Ministry of Investment Development and Entrepreneurship has been created, which are authorized to coordinate and support traditional sectors, foreign economic activity, development of small and medium-sized businesses. Through the Department of External Relations, we can contribute to the development of cooperation with international organizations, the implementation of various projects to support indigenous peoples, the establishment of sister cities with municipalities in other regions of Russia and foreign countries. The Department renders all possible assistance in carrying out projects of “people's diplomacy”, holding various events in the republic and municipalities, establishing an exchange of experience and knowledge with potential partners from other countries.