Aimar Ventsel: Estonian interests in the race for the Arctic

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Aimar Ventsel. Source: Ken Mürk

Estonia could contribute through digital solutions for developing energy-efficient and weatherproof buildings in the Arctic. Estonia is also unique as the center for the Finno-Ugric movement. However, Estonia first needs an Arctic strategy and corresponding funding, Aimar Ventsel writes in a comment originally published in the Diplomaatia magazine.

The race of national interests in and around the Arctic is on. Arctic interests have been declared by such countries as Singapore, India, Malaysia and Switzerland that are all far removed from the region. And it makes sense, because the Arctic is important.

For centuries, the northern part of the globe has symbolized that part of the world that seems to push Man away. The Arctic has a relentless climate and refuses to surrender to human control, an area where all manner of major human settlement and activity seemed out of the question.

However, it is also that part of the world changes in which affect the lives of all. The effects of climate change are the most prominent there and have global consequences, including access to new resources and transport corridors.

That said, access should be understood conditionally here, as the Arctic has been and will remain a region where major economic or political activity first depends on mankind's ability to do anything at all there.

Estonians in the Arctic

The Arctic or the circumpolar region is shared by eight countries that have direct interests in everything that it is and can offer. However, global interest in the region has been around for some time. It is little wonder then that Estonia is no exception.

Estonia joined the international Arctic club during the days of Czarist Russia, mainly through the activities of Baltic German officers and scientists, such as Bellingshausen, de Tolly or Krusentsern.

The Republic of Estonia also managed to keep up with developments in the Arctic before World War II. Estonia really made its mark on the Arctic and vice versa during the Soviet period when Estonian fishermen fished Arctic waters, Estonians participated in construction projects on the other side of the Arctic Circle, whereas we still lack a complete list of Estonian scientists who have pursued research in the region.

I have been asked, more than once, what are Estonia's interests in the Arctic and why do we need this Drang nach Arktik. The short answer would be that Estonia does not exist in a vacuum. Changes in the Arctic Ocean quickly reach the Baltic Sea and directly affect Estonia.

Secondly, Estonia has over decades developed a respectable portfolio of Arctic know-how it can use to participate in studying and analyzing processes in the Arctic. Estonia has a solid number of naturalists who have studied the region's ice conditions, flora and fauna, as well as its geology.

Tartu is home to the largest gene depository of the native peoples of the Arctic. Estonian ethologists, folklorists and linguists have spent decades studying the native peoples of Siberia, especially Finno-Ugric peoples. Estonians have designed and implemented measurement instruments for studying the Arctic and are on top in the world in Finno-Ugric studies.

Geopolitical warming

The situation in the normally icy Arctic is overheating. Regional and geopolitical rivalry between the Arctic countries can already be seen. Even traditional allies like the U.S. and Canada are arguing over territorial waters and fishing rights, not to mention Russia that is poised to have a bone to pick with all other Arctic countries in the near future.

Countries further away are adding fuel to the fire. China has been working on boosting its Arctic economic and scientific potential for some time. Chinese companies are active everywhere from Greenland to Finland, while Chinese scientists have been conducting detailed Arctic studies for decades, working with colleagues from all Arctic countries. Chinese funding allows Russian scientists to study the region, while Chinese researchers take a keen interest in the newest technology developed countries are using.

It is perhaps less known that Arctic studies sport a very high level in Japan. Japanese scientists have carried out a lot of research in the Russian Arctic, while they have also worked in other countries in the region. Japanese scientists arrived immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia's opening. Japanese are especially well-known for studying the native peoples of Siberia.

Indian companies are also establishing a foothold in Russian Arctic. Engaging in everything from diamond mining to the textile industry. Indian presence in Siberia is growing slowly and imperceptibly but constantly.

The international community is concerned over Russian activities in the region. The Russian Federation has political and economic interests in the Arctic, while the ideological aspect is often underestimated. Russia considers itself virtually the most important Arctic power and one destined to contend with all the others for its place under the Arctic sun.

Russia's arguments for demanding special status are historical but also stem from the facts that Russia has the most people living in the circumpolar region and a longer Arctic coastline than the others. Russia is also the only country engaging in active militarization in the Far North, having soon (re)opened a few dozen military bases and holding major training exercises.

Militarization, resources and the Northeast Passage

Three Arctic topics are generally held to be of geopolitical significance: militarization, access to resources and the future potential of the Northeast Passage.

Starting from the top, I believe I remain the only person to have spoken up on the Arctic who remains skeptical of the potential of militarization. Climatic and natural conditions are simply so extreme that no country currently has the capacity to develop major and constant military presence in the region.

Russian efforts include a good measure of so-called pokhazukha. Relatively small bases is what Russia currently has to show for its ambition, whereas we do not know how well they can be maintained in the long run.

Major economic activity in the Arctic is not cost-effective today, while potential environmental issues neither Scandinavia, USA nor Canada wants to see need to be considered.

The major potential of the Northeast Passage as an international transit corridor remains theoretical, the project has not been properly launched and there are skeptical opinions in terms of how it could fit in with the global network of trade routes. The former two topics will merit global attention in the long run.

This is precisely where Estonia can participate in the grand game. Our opportunities to be active in the region are limited. We have scientific and cultural cooperation, certain economic and communications-related topics and native peoples.

Digital and Finno-Ugric

Extreme conditions and vast distances in the Arctic are perfect for digital solutions that have become so common in Estonia. In addition to boosting people's quality of life through digital tools, Estonia could also help design buildings suitable for the Arctic environment.

Proper energy-efficient and weather-proof architecture is key to keeping people in the Arctic and the number one headache for all Arctic states to date.

Estonia is also in a unique position as the center of the Finno-Ugric movement. Most Finno-Ugric peoples live in Russia, while Estonia is the country in charge of organizing the tribal movement, from cultural events to scholarships for students with Finno-Ugric roots.

Communicating with native peoples' organizations is not easy as most are at odds with the countries they live in. Estonia is an exception here, which fact should be recognized.

Provided Estonia wants to have a say in Arctic affairs and contribute to the region's development, our existing Arctic competency needs to be nurtured and developed. What is paramount, however, is that Estonia currently lacks an Arctic strategy. The previous one expired in 2020 and no successor has been put together.

We would need a program for coordinating research and development, which we do not have at the moment. The program needs to come with earmarked funding. Estonian Arctic studies are largely financed by foreign states today.

Many Estonian naturalists studying the Arctic participate in Scandinavian research and development projects, while the geography of sporadic additional funding is more versatile in humanities and social sciences, with grants ranging from Russia to the UK.

One consequences of this financial instability is shortage of new researchers among naturalists and a complete lack in the case of humanities and social sciences.

Estonia has a lot of political scientists and other analysts dealing with Russia, while we have no one specialized on what they are doing in the Arctic. These bottlenecks need to be addressed post haste.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

Source: Diplomaatia

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