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An article for the „Arctic Herald“ magazine http://arctic-herald.ru

RUSSIA AND ICELAND: COOPERATION IN THE ARCTIC

Anton.V.Vasiliev,
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Iceland

Iceland, the 330 thousand people island nation in the North Atlantic, was one of the eight founding members of the Arctic Council in 1996. Iceland, that has no army and has only three key sectors of the economy – fishery, production of aluminum and foreign tourism, came to realize the importance of the Arctic for the national interests of the country not immediately, but quickly: large-scale climatic and other changes in the Far North, rapid development of international cooperation in the region, growing global interest in resources and transport routes opening up in the Arctic Ocean and the Arctic mainland turned the geographical position of the island into its important geostrategic reserve. Following other Arctic states,Iceland adopted its first Arctic Strategy as the Resolution of the Althingi (Parliament) on the state’s policy in the high latitudes in March 2011.

First and foremost, the Strategy advocates the „Arctic“ status of the country: though Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world, there is only a tiny territory of its Grimsey island that straddles the Arctic Circle. The climate in the country is unusually mild because of the warm Gulf Stream, that surrounds the island, Iceland does not need icebreakers. In addition, important ministerial meetings of the five coastal States whose continental part directly face the Arctic Ocean – Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway - in Ilulissat, Greenland in 2008 and in Chelsea, Canada in 2011 were held without Icelandic participation, and Reykjavik felt no enthusiasm for that. The Strategy recognizes the role of the Arctic Council as the most important consultative and decision making forum on Arctic issues and the role of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for the settlement of all possible disputes in the Arctic Ocean on the basis of negotiations and cooperation. It mentions that Iceland will safeguard its broadly defined security interests through political means and work against militarization of the Arctic. It also indicates actuality of development of trade and economic relations between the states in the Arctic region, which should contribute to Iceland‘s competitiveness regarding the use of commercial possibilities that will arise as a result of increased economic activity in the region. The Strategy particularly emphasizes importance of ensuring sustainable development of the Arctic, protection of environment and biodiversity, social wellbeing, rights and interests of indigenous peoples (although, unlike other Arctic States, there are no such peoples in Iceland), scientific research and understanding of climate, physical, social and other ongoing changes in the North, including by strengthening international cooperation.

Importance of the Arctic to the modern Iceland is also highlighted by the fact that in the National Security Policy for Iceland, adopted in April 2016 for the first time in the history of the Republic, the goal «to give particular consideration to Iceland’s environmental and security interests in the Arctic through international cooperation…» is marked as the leading point. It is significant that this issue is put in the document above the others, even such as membership of NATO, the 1951Defence agreement between Iceland and the United States and Nordic countries cooperation on security and defence.

It can be seen with half an eye that Iceland’s Arctic strategy is conceptually in tune with the Russian one, in particular with provisions of the «Basics of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the period till 2020 and for a further perspective» adopted in 2008. Thispoints up the similarity of national interests of the Arctic States in the High North. This is a sound basis for cooperation between Russia and Iceland, and it was reflected in the bilateralDeclaration on the Arctic cooperation signed by the ministers of foreign affairs of two states in Moscow on November 11, 2011. It was Iceland that became the first state, with which Russia agreed and adopted such document. The Declaration didn’t remain on paper and has been implemented coherently enough.

The Declaration states in particular that our countries «share diversified interests and common challenges in the Arctic» and are to promote bilateral Arctic cooperation as well as cooperation within the framework of the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council. Among principal spheres of such cooperation are search and rescue, marine and air transport, environmental protection, scientific research, education, IT technologies and the others, that can become subjectof further agreements.

In 2008-2014 I had the honour to represent Russia in the Arctic Council, so I know from inside how positive and useful our cooperation in this forum has always been and stays till now. Thus, Iceland did play an important positive role during the negotiations under the aegis of the Council on the first two multilateral legally binding pan-arctic Agreements - on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic of 2011 and on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic of 2013. Both demanded two years of hard work and in both cases the finalrounds of negotiations on most tricky issues were successfully held in Reykjavik.

In recent years Iceland was sendingits best ambassadors to the Arctic Council - Hjalmar Hannesson, ThorsteinIngolfsson, ArniThor Sigurdsson. Russian representatives enjoyed good interaction with all of them.

Iceland has provided sites for secretariats of the two (out of six) permanent Arctic Council working groups, which carry out main activities of the Council on dozens of joint scientific and practical projects, in whichRussian scientists and experts are taking an active part- CAFF (conservation of the Arctic flora and fauna) and PAME (protection of the Arctic marine environment). Director of the permanent Secretariat of the Council, where representatives from Russia also work, is Icelander Magnus Johannesson.

Significant role in positioning of Iceland as an active Arctic country belongs to OlafurRagnarGrimsson, longstanding president of the country for 20 years in 1996-2016. Mr. O.R.Grimsson visited Russia many times and met with President Vladimir Putin, inter aliaat all three international conferences«Arctic – territory of dialogue», organized byRussia in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Since 2013, at the initiative of Mr. O.R.Grimsson, Iceland has been hosting annual international Arctic conference «Arctic Circle» (correctliteral translation of «Arctic circle»into Russian is Northern polar circle, but "Arctic Circle" more accurately conveys multivalued forum name). Conducted with serious financial support from large local and international companies,«Arctic Circle»assemblies, combining plenary sessionsinitiated by the organizers, including high level sessions, with thematic breakout sessions, proposed by any interested participant, gather up to 2 thousand participants, both from the Arctic, and, mostly,from non-Arctic states, and became authoritative venue, wherethe Arctic states could explaintheir regional policy to the others. In various periods of time, these assemblies witnessed very successful speeches bySpecial Presidential Representative forInternational Cooperation on the Arctic and Antarctic A.N.Chilingarov, Deputy Minister of Transport of Russia V.A.Olersky, Heads of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) E.A.Borisov, Arkhangelsk region - I.A.Orlov, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District –D.N.Kobylkin, Federation Council members L.P.Kononovaand A.I.Otke, many other Russian officials and scientists. After leaving the post of President of Iceland Mr.O.R.Grimsson remained Chairman of the «Arctic Circle» (www.arcticcircle.org) and islooking forward to further strengthening ties with Russia.

The Arctic has constantly been a topic of regular bilateral political consultations between the heads of the foreign ministries of our countries.

Akureyri, a city in the north of Iceland, and Murmansk have established twin city relations. The most active partners of Iceland at the regional level on our part are Arkhangelsk and Murmansk regions, the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District. By the way, the Stefansson Arctic Institute (www.svs.is/en), famous «among the Arctic circles», has been operating at the UniversityofAkureyri. It is frequently visited by the scientistsfrom the St. Petersburg State University, Northern (Arctic) Federal University and other Russian educational and research centers. The Stefansson Institute became famous, among other things, for being the birthplace of a new scientific discipline - polar (or Arctic) law. It is no coincidence that the secretariat of the International Arctic Scientific Committee, maintenance of which the Government of Iceland took upon,moved from German Postdam to Akureyri in 2016.

There are many examples of collaboration and cooperation between our countries in the North also in practical areas.

Iceland managed to convert the splash of attention to the Arctic in the world into a rapidly growing flow of foreign tourists to Iceland. They amounted to 1,8 million in 2016. Tourism became the most important source of financial revenues of the state, and helped it to get out of the difficult financial and economic crisis of 2008.Iceland is becoming increasingly popular among the Russian tourists, as well. Number of their trips to Iceland grew from 7 thousand in 2013 to 8 thousand in 2014, then dropped (due to depreciation of the ruble) in 2015 to 4,9 thousand, and in 2016 increased again almost by third, up to 6,3 thousand. Russian tourists are liked in Iceland for their generosity: according to statistics,an average tourist from Russia spends more money per a trip than the others, except for the Swiss and the Chinese. Tourist agencies, established by our countrymen, which are servicing Russian-speaking guests from all over the world, have been flourishing in Reykjavik. Interest of Icelanders in trips to Russia has been growing as well, while besides tourists travelling to traditional points of interest in our country – Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and Sochi, more and more like to travel to the Russian Arctic. Thus, popular Icelandic photographer and artistRagnarAxelsson visited Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) and Nenets Autonomous Region in 2016 and published a wonderful book of photographs.

Icelandtakes seriously the opportunities, which can be entailed by the growing traffic along the Northern Sea Route. Anticipating that this would lead to themore intensive navigation near the Icelandic shores, andfollowing the relevant pan-Arctic agreement of 2011, the country is widely discussingthe idea to create a large-scale regional search and rescue center in the port of Keflavik. Special inter-agency commission, which had been working for two years, has already presented to the government an analytical report with relevant proposals. It is obvious that adoption of the government decision on this matter mayopen an opportunity to strengthen cooperation between Icelandic rescuers and Russian EMERCOM and Ministry of Transport, which have a unique practical experience in this area.

One of the interesting implementedprojectsis the activity of the branch of the Icelandic company «Arctic Trucks» in Krasnoyarsk. Cross-country ability of the cars, off-road vehicles by Toyota and other brands, modified by the company,increase by an order, especially in the snow,due to the strengthening of suspension and the installation of specially developed enhanced tires. The technology, invented for the Icelandic off-road terrains, turned out popular in the world. The first hundreds of Krasnoyarsk «Arctic Trucks» quickly found buyers in the Russian market, and the demand for them is growing.

Iceland is a countrywhere energyproduction iscompletely «green»- 70% of its electricity is produced by hydroelectric and 30% - by geothermal power plants. Geothermal energy is one of the few of its natural resources, export of geothermal technologies is the hallmark of its "economic diplomacy", thistopic is discussed at nearly all its high-level international contacts. By the way, the triumph of Icelandic football team at Euro-2016 was largely due to the availability of outdoor football fields, geothermallyheated in winter, in all more or less large communities of the country. Icelandic experience may complement the existing Russia's practicesof development of geothermal resources in the Russian Arctic, Siberia and the Far East. In October 2016 Russian and Icelandic companies signed an agreement of intent on the building of geothermal generating capacities of up to 2 GW on the basis of geothermal resources on the territory of the Kamchatka region and the Kuril Islands.

Iceland expressed its interest in the Russian project «ROTAX», a planto lay fiber-optic cable to link Europe and Asia across the Arctic Ocean. There are ongoing consultations between companies of two countries on the issue of connection of Iceland to that cable with the interconnection length of nearly 1,5 thousandkm.

In November 2016 a representative Icelandic delegation has attended the Fifth Murmansk International Business Week; businessmen of our countries showed a keen interest in joint projects in fishing and fish processing industry, manufacturing, energy. It is assumed that they can be complemented by the cooperation between scientific and educational institutions, in particular by the joint educational projects in fisheries management on the basis of the Murmansk State Technical University and the Knipovich  Polar Research Institute of Marine Fisheries and Oceanography – famous PINRO.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that Iceland hasjoined all anti-Russian sanctions of the European Union, and in response, in August 2015 it was included in the list of countries to which we imposedcounter-sanctions. Traditionally, export of Icelandic fish took lion's share of Russian-Icelandic trade turnover (80% or more), so the counter-sanctions led to its collapse in 2016 (it shrank by a factor of 4), and as a result the economy of Iceland - by virtue of its «fish monoculture» - has suffered, perhaps, more than any other country which initiated sanctions or joined them. For Iceland this situation is twice absurd, considering that sanctions against Russia were based on fictionalpretext. But that was the sovereign choice of Reykjavik. However, during the political consultations betweenthe RussianFirst Deputy Foreign Minister V.Titov and Foreign Minister of Iceland L.D.Alfredsdottir, held in August 2016,the agreement in principle was reached, that our countries would actively continue and expand pragmatic cooperation and collaboration in the sectors and projects not affected by sanctions. The Arctic has been and will be such an area, in which we have significant common interests and where a lot has already been done. I am confident that the bilateral cooperation between Russia and Iceland in the Arctic will remain the most important natural element of bilateral relations and its positive potential will only grow.