Expert: Norway-Russian Arctic deal is near

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent

BERLIN, March 31 (UPI) -- A 40-year-old conflict between Russia and Norway over an Arctic sea boundary will likely be over next month, an expert told United Press International.

"I think there will be an agreement announced on the Barents Sea border dispute," when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is in Oslo April 26-27, Rune Rafaelsen, the secretary-general of the Barents Secretariat, a diplomacy group focusing on regional cooperation financed by Norway's foreign ministry, told UPI in a telephone interview.


"What's the reason for me to say this? Well, why would Medvedev spend two days in Norway if there was nothing new to announce? Also, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg met (Russian Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin two weeks ago in Helsinki in talks that hadn't been planned. Those are indications that we might have an agreement."

Russia and Norway have for the past four decades disagreed over boundaries in the Barents Sea, which is believed to hold vast amounts of oil, gas and precious metals.


Relations between both nations are nevertheless strong, with Moscow inviting Norway's StatoilHydro to join Gazprom in tapping the Shtokman fossil fuel deposit in the Barents Sea.

Climate change is causing Arctic ice sheets to melt, with the oceans in the region possibly ice-free during the summer months. This is opening a new Atlantic-Pacific shipping channel and makes the vast natural resources lying under the seabed more accessible.

Nations have laid conflicting claims to the seabeds. Apart from the Russian-Norwegian conflict, the United States and Canada are rowing over a swath of the Beaufort Sea and over the Northwest Passage, which in 2007 for the first time in modern history was free of ice.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty ratified by all nations with interests in the Arctic except the United States, states that Arctic border countries can claim ownership of natural resources up to 200 nautical miles off their coasts. Arctic nations are now exploring to where their continental shelves extend -- findings that could increase their territories.

Observers have warned that the legal conflict over boundaries might evolve into a military one. Russia sparked concern when one of its submarines planted a flag in the seabed in territory it considers its own at the North Pole in 2007. In general, military activity in the region has increased in recent years.


However, most experts say there is no need to worry.

"There is zero potential for military conflict in the Arctic," Rafaelsen told UPI. "Our cooperation with Russia has been excellent and Moscow has always accepted international sea law."

His remarks come as the five nations with interests bordering the Arctic -- Norway, Russia, the United States, Canada and Denmark -- met this week in Ottawa. At the meeting, the five states pledged closer cooperation to regulate the Arctic boom.

Environmental groups are worried that the Arctic, one of the world's most pristine natural ecosystems, may be destroyed by reckless industrial activity.

Last summer, Germany's Beluga Shipping made the first commercial trip from Vladivostok in Russia to Rotterdam in the Netherlands through the once impassable Arctic waters.

"This summer there will be lots of shipping in the Arctic, not only from Beluga but also from Russian and potentially Asian companies," Rafaelsen told UPI. "But I am optimistic that you can explore the arctic industrially and at the same time keep it environmentally in balance. Sure there could be conflicts but I think it's possible to solve them. Because destroying the Arctic would be bad for everyone involved."

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