Editor’s Note: Wikistrat’s Facebook followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A drill with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts — Dr. Jeremy Tasch.
Dr. Tasch has been researching and working in Eurasia for over 15 years in areas ranging from civil society development in Azerbaijan to resource development and indigenous people in the Russian Far East. Co-author of a forthcoming book on cooperation and conflict in the Circumpolar North, he was a senior investigator on a National Science Foundation-sponsored multi-year and multi-country project researching the “Arctic Gold Rush.” Associate professor of geography and environmental planning, he is Towson University’s first interdisciplinary hire in Eurasian and global studies and is a frequent speaker in domestic and international venues.
Jesse Parent: What are some of your key takeaways from your work on the Arctic Gold Rush project?
Answer: Greetings Jesse, thank you very much for your participation. I particularly appreciate your question as it offers a chance to share some of the insights my colleagues and I gained from our collaborative research in Canada, Denmark and Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the United States (Washington, DC and Alaska).
In past years, the waters of the world’s smallest ocean, which surrounds the North Pole and connects North America and Eurasia, would be disturbed by little other than occasional cargo barges, seasonal fishing vessels, and spruce umiak, the pelt covered hunting boats of the Arctic’s coastal indigenous peoples. The Arctic has typically been charted on maps as somehow fixed, marginal, and frozen, reinforcing the popular notion held by many from outside the region of an unchanging location on the edge of world affairs. But the extended Arctic region has always been a place where climate change and human societies have dynamically interacted. And in the 21st century, physical and political changes in the circumpolar region have been accelerating.
The convergence in the Arctic of environmental changes and their implications for lifestyles and habitats, new and potentially profitable shipping lanes, increasingly accessible and valuable natural resources, unresolved maritime boundaries in the Arctic Ocean, and deadlines for nations to submit their claims to the UN for Arctic maritime territory offers commentators from outside the region a sense that the Arctic is “heating up.” Headlines such as “Arctic Cold War Heats Up” (The Moscow News, March 29, 2012), “Race Is On As Ice Melt Reveals Arctic Treasures” (The New York Times, September 18, 2012), and “China’s New Strategic Target: Arctic Minerals” (The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2012) may seem to suggest that the Arctic is a frontier region where access to resources goes to whoever is quick and forceful enough to reach them first.
But unilateral actions by states falling outside agreed upon norms and conventions that govern international relations are rare in the Arctic. The Arctic is emerging as a region where cooperation, not conflict, is the norm. Thus, notwithstanding the media’s portrayal of a new “Arctic Gold Rush” where states are poised for a “race for resources” and environmental organizations brace themselves for a showdown over the health of northern wildlife and habitats, Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s “Friendly Arctic,” the phrase he used to portray the High North to audiences back in the 1920s, better characterizes the region. Our field work, which included over 150 interviews with representatives of governments, corporations, and civil society demonstrated that the Arctic is indeed a place of rules, regulations, and international cooperation among states and non-state stakeholders.
Thank you again for being involved and for your question.
Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu: Dr. Tasch, thanks for this opportunity. I would like to hear from you about civil society’s role in Azerbaijan. How do you evaluate the effect of civil society in the context of freedom of expression and free political choices as an alternative to available power if we compare the situation of today and recent history?
Answer: Greetings Mehmet, I especially appreciate your question, as presidential elections will take place in Azerbaijan in approximately three weeks. I was involved in civil society development for several years in Azerbaijan. I became friends and acquaintances with hundreds of residents, from high school students and their parents, to members of the government, and I look forward to an opportunity to return again for an extended period of time. My friends and colleagues living in Azerbaijan are among the most talented, educated, and hospitable individuals I have had the honor to work with, and thus I am sorry that my answer to your question may not seem optimistic.
For a decade or so following Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, media outlets expanded and diversified. But since assuming the presidency from his father, Haydar Aliyev, in 2003, President Ilham Aliyev (the son) and his government have been increasing both formal and informal restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. In recent months, the government has taken additional measures to control the public’s access to information and to limit even virtual opportunities to gather and exchange information. On June 6, 2013, President Aliyev signed an “anti-defamatory” bill into law, making the posting of “offensive” opinions on the Internet punishable by up to three years in prison.
At the same time, youth-organized groups are diverse and include nascent political parties, social organizations, and public associations. Among the largest and more well-known of the country’s youth organizations is the Baku-based US-Educated Azerbaijani Alumni Association (AAA). The AAA, a member-driven organization, includes in its stated mission support for continued democratization and development of civil society. The AAA continues to grow annually and surpassed 2000 members in 2012. Through its monthly meetings and online networks it provides a forum for discourse and debate and while nongovernmental, encourages election participation and political engagement, although the organization officially maintains a nonpartisan political position. Approximately 100 of its high school members have interned with the Ministries of Communications, Ecology, Education, International Relations, and Economic Development between 2005 – 2012.
Observers in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Georgia, and the Kyrgyz Republic, and in Turkey (as you, Mehmet, may first hand be aware), and in the countries popularly associated with the Arab Spring were caught off-guard by popular protests and abrupt, sometimes violent, political transition. While often apparently spontaneous, popular uprisings can begin through the presence of social and professional networks — formal and informal — and through leadership often nascent and unrecognized. Although sometimes attributed to the discontent of just a few by the ruling elite, dissatisfaction with the political and economic milieu is often the sentiment of many. In fact, the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 saw protests in Azerbaijan’s regions of Guba, Sabirabad, Ismayilli, and even in the capital of Baku itself. While an “Azerbaijani Spring” does not seem likely, nonetheless, protests leading up to the October 2013 presidential election are likely to expand even as the government attempts preemptively to prevent such public demonstrations.
Again, I appreciate your question, Mehmet, and imagine you would likely have interesting insights on this topic.
Graham O’Brien: Hi Dr. Tasch, thanks for your time. Regarding your research on the Arctic, I was wondering if you could discuss the subject of Arctic shipping in particular and how it can play a dual role in creating both prosperity and problems for the active Arctic nations.
Answer: Hi Graham, thank you very much for offering a question that involves both Arctic nations – as you quite rightly point to in your question — as well as non-Arctic nations. International stakeholders outside the Arctic are increasingly interested in the Arctic Ocean high seas’ potential fishing, natural resources, and — again as you highlight in your question — shipping routes.
New technologies that facilitate operations in Arctic regions with hostile sea and weather conditions is stimulating renewed interest in the region as a trans-Arctic passageway. Rising commodity prices and demand for natural gas, oil, and minerals stimulates national, corporate, and civil society visions for how to access and who should have access to the Arctic region. The increasing demand for natural resources consequently drives demand for shipping services to support the extraction of these resources, which then creates maritime trade among Arctic drilling sites and northern settlements. Maritime tourism in the Arctic is growing, facilitated by increasing accessibility and improvements in ship design and Arctic maritime safety. Tourists increasingly bring back to their southern metropoles photographs of “pristine” nature and Arctic wildlife, encouraging their friends and neighbors to book cruises to see the Arctic’s “inaccessible” wilderness. The Arctic’s international waters are at potential risk from over-exploitation of marine resources and rising pollution levels from increased shipping, while more commercial vessels and cruise ship passengers are at higher threat from treacherous storms and accidents.
The Arctic’s thinning ice and extended ice free summer periods are contributing to increased international ship traffic — more offshore support vessel activity and more ships moving cargo between Arctic ports and the rest of the world, and the initial stages of commercially viable intercontinental northern sea routes connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The numbers of cruise ships entering Arctic waters from multiple routes are also growing, as are the numbers of ships traveling to service Arctic oil, gas and mining facilities. These are large ships, carrying more passengers and hazardous heavy fuels, transiting treacherous seas along ecologically sensitive coasts, and with virtually no emergency response infrastructure along the way. The grounding off Unalaska of the 738-foot Selendang Ayu, a Malaysian bulk carrier loaded with soybeans and 1,000 tons of fuel 10 years ago was a distressing warning, “a canary in the mine.” The sinking was caused by a combination of human error, financial stresses, mechanical breakdown, harsh weather, inadequate monitoring and slack government oversight. As international shipping activity grows, so too do risks in the Arctic. As reflected by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Arctic’s international high seas must be managed for the benefit and safety of everyone, in- and outside the Arctic.
Thank you Graham, for offering a timely question, the topic of which will only draw increasing attention as the Arctic becomes increasingly accessible, and accessed.
Stay tuned for our next Q&A session on Wikistrat’s Facebook page!