May 24, 2007

Russia's Northern Sea Route: Just a dotted line on the map?

21:33 | 23/ 05/ 2007



MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maxim Krans) - Debates over the Northern Sea Route, a shipping lane from the Atlantic to the Pacific along the coast of northern Russia, have been going on for many years.

Local residents are sounding the alarm, scientists and journalists are crossing swords, and even MPs are worried about this problem, unable to take a nap in their comfy chairs. Russia's State Council, an advisory body consisting of the country's regional leaders, and the Sea College discussed it again at their May meeting in Murmansk. Will this standstill be overcome at long last?

A scrap heap, so typical of the Russian north, stretches from the Apapelgino airport to Pevek. It is littered with rusty boats and barrels that once held diesel oil, skeletons of cars and even the remains of a semi-dismantled Yak-40 aircraft, battered by the southern winds and snowstorms.

The town is buried in a silence that is pierced only by the penetrating cries of seagulls. Its streets are deserted. Stuck in permafrost at the bottom of a hill, the buildings display the black sockets of empty windows. When I was in Pevek in the late 1990s, its population consisted of 12,000 people; now only 4,000 are left. The town's few plants are working at half-capacity. Russia no longer needs the tin that was produced in a land whose praises were once sung by the renowned Russian author Oleg Kuvayev.

The world's northernmost port is also empty. At one time, up to 20 ships gathered at a time in its roadstead. Now as many come to the harbor during the entire navigation season, and that largely owing to gold miners.

Formerly a major transshipment point of the Northern Sea Route, Pevek graphically reflects the disastrous situation that has engulfed the entire unique route from the island of Novaya Zemlya to the Bering Strait. In the past 15 years, the route, encompassing six seas, has sunk into complete decay.

The programs for the development of this enormous area were curtailed with the start of market reforms after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many major plants in the north-east ground to a halt. Timber exports via the Igarka River virtually stopped. The production of non-ferrous metals, which was largely the backbone of the northern economy, took a dive. As a result, cargo transportation by the Northern Sea Route dwindled by four times and became unprofitable. It was eventually reduced to rare coastal journeys to supply the locals with food and other necessities.

Deprived of government support, the once powerful ice-breaking fleet lost its glory. Out of eight nuclear-powered ships, five have passed their service life. The last ship, 50th Anniversary of Victory, which was shown with pride to President Vladimir Putin in May, was built in 1989. In several years, it will be the only one left.

Academician Alexander Granberg, who has taken part in many high-altitude expeditions, said on this score: "The entire infrastructure of the Northern Sea Route, including polar aviation, ice surveying, communications, and meteorological and hydrographic services, is in a state of a crisis caused both by economic factors and the short-sighted policy of the government. If we do not start immediately reviving the Arctic transportation system, voyages on the Northern Sea Route will be led by the Japanese or the Americans."

This scenario is quite plausible. Many countries have staked their claims to this transportation artery. The American Council at the UN University called the Arctic a potential breeding ground for international conflicts.

This is the situation. We knew from school textbooks that the sea lane stretching along the former Soviet coast from the Atlantic to the Pacific and up to the North Pole belongs to us. On all maps, it clearly follows the meridians, making only one curve in the Barents Sea. We have been disputing it with Norway for more than 30 years. It is worth the trouble - by some estimates gas reserves on the disputed shelf are as large as the Shtokman deposit.

Both Russia and Norway are enthusiastically searching for a compromise. Renowned Norwegian scientist Willy Ostreng believes we only have a few more years to settle the issue, that is, before the main hydrocarbon consumers - the United States and China - make it to the Arctic and start dictating their terms.

There are grounds for such apprehensions. The Chinese have opened a research station on Norway's Spitsbergen Island and transferred the Snow Dragon ice- breaker to it from the Antarctic. The United States has also become markedly more active. Just recently, Deputy Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar urged the United States to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in order to counterbalance Moscow's claims to polar energy resources.

In the last few years, other countries, some of them not even northern, have been also been eyeing the territories that we have considered ours since times immemorial. Still others have called into doubt the principle of dividing up the Arctic pie, which was cut into five pieces way back in the 1920s. The reason for these claims is obvious - the shelf of the northern seas accounts for up to a quarter of the world's hydrocarbon reserves.

Incidentally, the Convention on the Law of the Sea allows us to put this dispute to rest and expand our 200-mile zone legally, but only if we prove that the underwater Lomonosov and Mendeleyev ridges are direct continuations of Russian land. Five years ago, a special UN commission dismissed Russia's arguments as invalid. Now we will have to carry out a second survey.

These territorial disputes have had a tremendous impact on the importance of the Northern Sea Route, which is quite understandable. The country that dominates this sea lane will dictate its terms to the developers of the shelf deposits and will see the biggest gains from the transportation of raw materials to the Pacific and the Atlantic. These include billions of tons of oil and trillions of cubic meters of gas, not to mention other minerals in which the local lands abound.

It seems that everyone in Russia agrees that it is time to restore the Northern Sea Route and revive the economy of the Extreme North. We will then have both cargoes and vessels to carry them. At the Murmansk meeting, President Putin suggested establishing a national Arctic council to address this issue. This is a good idea, and it could work, unless it gets bogged down in red tape like a bill on the Northern Sea Route submitted to the State Duma in 2000. If this happens again, this sea lane will remain for us just a dotted line on the map.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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