Greenland Parliamentary Elections: What You Need to Know about Ice Friday

The future of Greenland will be shaped on Friday. Photo: © Mia Bennett.

The future of Greenland will be shaped on Friday. Photo: © Mia Bennett.

On November 28, Greenlanders will go to the polls to vote in a general election for the second time in less than two years. In early October, the snap election was called after the former prime minister, Aleqa Hammond, resigned due to a scandal involving misspending of approximately $18,000 worth of public funds. She is accused of misusing these funds to pay for plane tickets for her and her family, hotel rooms, and minibar charges.

It’s a long fall from grace for the woman who was Greenland’s first female prime minister. In March 2013, Hammond led the opposition party to win 14 of the 31 seats in Inatsisartut, Greenland’s parliament. Hammond’s party ousted the incumbent Inuit Ataqatigiit party and the prime minister at the time, Kuupik Kleist. Two seats short of a majority, Siumut formed a coalition with Solidarity and the Inuit Party (which didn’t stay for long in the coalition).

Siumut had run heavily on a campaign promoting independence from Denmark and the lifting of a ban on uranium mining – two promises that the country’s relatively new slogan, “Pioneering Greenland” (see, for instance, this promotional video), encapsulates. While independence may have now receded even farther into the distance given the political upheaval, in October 2013, Siumut did follow through with its promise to overturn the longstanding ban. This was a crucial step for moving forward with developing rare earth minerals, since most of the deposits are tied up with uranium.

With uranium mining allowed, some corporate interest and a great deal more media hype trumpeted Greenland as the next mining frontier. The Wall Street Journal announced, “Greenland Opens Door to Mining,” while Foreign Affairs published a splashy story called “Greenland’s Rare Earths Gold Rush.” The stories were more than hot air. The Kvanefjeld project in southern Greenland holds vast reserves of rare earth oxides, and Australian-based Greenland Minerals and Energy Limited (GME) has already invested $75 million into the project over the past six years (source). Under certain conditions, Greenland could become an important alternative supplier of rare earth minerals, undermining China’s 90% dominance of the trade. The Arctic island is also home to significant deposits of gold, ruby, and iron.

Hammond’s heavy promotion of Greenland as a source of minerals for the rest of the world, however, brought a great deal of disapproval onto her government. Critics accused her of not involving the people enough in a decision that directly affects the future of their environment. Clearly, many in Greenland were upset with Hammond and Siumut’s policies: Two of the biggest protests ever in Nuuk were in the lead-up to the parliamentary vote on the uranium mining ban and in the wake of Hammond’s alleged abuse of public funds.

Some dissenters believe that Greenland would be entering into a Faustian bargain if it were to develop its natural resources in order to become economically self-sufficient and independent from Denmark. To replace the DKK 3.2 billion bloc grant that comes from Copenhagen every year, Greenland would have to develop a significant amount of its resources at high commodity prices – a gamble that the experience of countries dependent on primary product exports, like Russia, show is a risky bet. The country might become independent from Denmark, but it would become dependent on the fluctuations of global commodity cycles. Others in Greenland would like to see their country fully become part of the globalized world and think that the bet is worth taking.

Opposition party leads the polls

Right now, the opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), is expected to win the most votes, although it’s hard to predict whether it will be able to take home the 16 seats needed to obtain a parliamentary majority. Using polling data taken in September, the London School of Economics media blog predicts that IA will take home 13 seats and Siumut 12. Nunatsiaq Online posits that IA could win 14 to 16 seats. If IA wins, leader Sara Olsvig has promised to put the uranium mining ban question to the people in a referendum, although she has made it no secret that her party is opposed in principle to uranium mining. In fact, the gap between IA and Siumut may be closing now after Olsvig’s comments in an interview with Danish news site politiken.dk were interpreted to mean that she would not respect the referendum if the people voted to allow uranium mining – words she is now trying to take back (article in Danish).

Who will watch and who to watch

Elections in Greenland will be watched from afar by a wide range of people. There’s the politicians in Copenhagen, for one, and mining companies and investors as far away as Australia. GME (ASX: GGG)’s stock price closely reflects outcomes of elections and policy decisions in Greenland. Its value has tumbled by half since the revelations in Nuuk regarding Hammond in September 2014, and even more dramatically when compared to the highs of Siumut’s victory in March 2013. Then, GGG was worth 40 cents a share. Now, it’s worth 7 cents a share.

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Last but not least, there’s even a Greenlandic expat community in Israel that will possibly tune into the results over falafels instead of musk ox.  The Danish Embassy in Tel Aviv was accepting postal votes from eligible voters through November 19 (bonus points to those who mailed their ballots with the special Israel-Greenland Joint Issue postage stamps). So as millions of Americans recover from their Thanksgiving meals and stand in line at four in the morning for items like iPhones and televisions, items, thousands of Greenlanders will be making their way to vote on the future of the world’s largest island, which could one day supply those rare earth metals needed to make Black Friday’s consumer goods. Somehow, the single polling station in Nuuk will manage.

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For updates on the elections in Greenland, check out the following resources (more updates forthcoming):

News

  • Sermitsiaq, one of Greenland’s two national newspapers. In Danish and Greenlandic.
  • Nunatsiaq Online: English-languages updates from a newspaper based in Nunavut and Nunavik, Canada.
  • Politiken – a leading Danish newspaper, which will be covering the elections
  • Polarisk Group’s briefing on the Greenland parliamentary elections

Twitter

  • @saraolsvig – Leader of IA
  • @madsnyvold – Journalist for Sermitsiaq based in Nuuk.
  • Hashtags: #glpol #qin14 #glvalg14

Arctic Satellite Image of the Week: Russia discovers a new island in its Arctic

Landsat-8 image of new island discovered near Russia.

Landsat 8 image taken on June 16, 2013 of new island discovered near Russia. Image from NASA via USGS Earth Explorer.

In September 2013, two military helicopter pilots transporting equipment from Tiksi, a port city in northeast Russia, to the New Siberian Islands spotted a previously unknown island in the Laptev Sea. The discovery took place just a little ways south of the main shipping lanes used for the Northern Sea Route and has now been corroborated by geological surveying. The Russian-language version of Popular Mechanics notes that the small, low-lying island has been christened “Yaya,” or “Яя” in Russian. The rhyming name comes from the Russian word “Я,” which means “I”, for the pilot of each Mi-26 helicopter essentially shouted, “It was I who found it!” when they spotted the scrap of land.

The pilots happened to fly over the island (73°59′25″ N, 133°05′28 E) in September, when Arctic sea ice is at its lowest extent. September is the usually the first entire month to be open to shipping along the Northern Sea Route, too. I was unable to find cloud-free Landsat 8 satellite images taken over the location of the new island in September, or any of the other relatively ice-free months for that matter (July, August, and October), but I was able to find a cloud-free image taken on June 16, 2013, when the water was still frozen solid. Even despite all the thick sea ice surrounding the brown speck of land, it still manages to stick out.

Geographically speaking, the discovery reveals the extent to which the Arctic – especially the eastern Russian Arctic – still remains poorly mapped. It’s rare to hear of new islands – however small – being discovered elsewhere in the world unless they’re due to some recent volcanic activity.

Map of new island's location and Russia's new territorial waters.

Map of new island’s location and Russia’s new territorial waters.

New Siberian Islands Buildup?

Legally speaking, while the island is small, its discovery does have certain implications under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). All of the waters around Yaya Island already fall within Russian’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But Section II explains that territorial seas extend 12 nautical miles outward from a country’s coastline. Thus, with the addition of the island to Russian territory, the country will gain 452 square kilometers of territorial seas. Once classified as territorial seas, then the water surface area, the air column above it, and the water column and seabed below it all become part of the country’s sovereign area.

UNCLOS also specifies that countries cannot levy charges on foreign ships for passing through their territorial waters, let alone EEZs. Yet because the waters are ice covered for a majority of the year, Russia is able to enforce additional regulations to prevent pollution, including by levying charges, under Article 234.

Yaya Island’s existence will cause hardly any large-scale changes in the eastern Russian maritime Arctic. But what could be more of a game-changer is the uptick in military-related activities occurring around Tiksi and the New Siberian Islands. The two helicopters that spotted Yaya were, as mentioned, ferrying unspecified equipment to the New Siberian Islands in September 2013 – one year before Russia re-opened a former Soviet military base there. So perhaps more than the discovery of the island, it’s actually the discoverers who form the real story behind the headline. In next week’s Arctic satellite image of the week post, I’ll look more into the military buildup taking place at what was their destination: the New Siberian Islands.

Vestiges of the Berlin Wall in the Arctic

A part of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. © Mia Bennett.

A part of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. © Mia Bennett.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, issuing a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Tear down this wall!” he famously cried. In the autumn of that same year, in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk, Gorbachev made a similar challenge to the world to end the divisions wrought by the Cold War in the Arctic. “Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace,” he proclaimed. “Let the North Pole be a pole of peace.”

Both Reagan and Gorbachev’s visions were made real over the next few years as the Berlin Wall fell down and the Arctic became a peaceful region that fostered multilateral environmental cooperation. The 1990s witnessed both the reunification of Germany and the formation of the Arctic Council. A united Germany even became an Arctic Council observer, and the Port of Hamburg – revitalized by reunification – could one day help connect eastern Germany, the Czech Republic, and beyond to the Northern Sea Route, as I wrote a few months ago.

So on Sunday at the Brandenburg Gate, millions of people celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the wall. But no such celebrations are taking place in the Arctic, for neither Russia nor the West is helping to realize Gorbachev’s vision of the Arctic becoming a zone of peace. In April, for instance, Canada boycotted an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow over objections to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. A new report by the European Leadership Network uncovered nearly 40 instances of “brinkmanship,” or close encounters between Russian and Western forces. I mapped the data provided by the ELN on Google Maps into a polar projection, and the clustering of encounters in the Baltic Sea remains clear. In the Arctic, though, there are also several encounters, mostly near Canada and Alaska and one instance south of Greenland. In the sub-Arctic, a couple other instances occur in the Sea of Okhotsk, though they are not shown in the map below. It was therefore perhaps not surprising that over the weekend at a ceremony in Berlin, Gorbachev warned that the world was on the brink of a new cold war. He intoned, “We must make sure that we get the tensions that have arisen recently under control.”

Gorbachev, as has been widely reported, has accused the United States, the West, and NATO of triumphalism. NATO has continually expanded its footprint east, bringing the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into its fold and undermining Russian desires for a buffer zone along its perimeter. The Baltic states (which, it is worth noting, are occasionally described as “near-Arctic”) have thus lately been no stranger to Russian incursions. An Estonian policeman accused of being a spy was arrested by Russian authorities, with Estonia alleging that he was kidnapped from Estonian territory. A submarine, possibly Russian, was spotted somewhere off of Stockholm around the time that Lithuania’s new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal was making its way to the port of Klaipėda. Russia is probably not thrilled about Lithuania’s new infrastructure, which allows it more flexibility in gas imports, and, importantly, decreases its reliance on Siberian gas. Additionally, unlike many other European countries which have 15- or 30- year gas contracts with Russia, Lithuania’s contracts with Gazprom expire next year, so it will be sooner able to restructure its gas portfolio. The first shipment of LNG from Norway arrived at the end of last month, and Lithuania signed a five-year gas supply deal with Statoil in August that could provide up to 20% of the country’s needs. Norway is undoubtedly the preferred Arctic partner for the republic that was the first to declare independence from the USSR.

September 18: A Day that will live in Arctic infamy?

Map showing close encounters with Russian military forces (source: ) and detention locations for Juros Vilkas and MV Arctic Sunrise. Location of Juros Vilkas is approximate.

Map showing close encounters with Russian military forces (source: European Leadership Network) and detention locations for Juros Vilkas and MV Arctic Sunrise. Location of Juros Vilkas is approximate.

Tensions between Lithuania and Russia, however, are not confined to the Baltic Sea. They have now extended into the Arctic. On September 18, 2014 – exactly one year to the day after Greenpeace’s MV Arctic Sunrise protestors were detained in the Barents Sea for protesting offshore drilling at the Prirazlomnaya rig - the Lithuanian-flagged fishing boat Jūros Vilkas (“Sea Wolf”) was detained by Russian authorities and towed to Murmansk. The ship, owned by Seattle based company Arctic Fishing, was accused of illegally catching 15 tons of snow crab in Russia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). While ships can navigate freely in a country’s EEZ, the sovereign country retains the right to all of the natural resources in the water column and seabed beneath.

Illegal fishing is no small matter in the Arctic (see this WWF document for a brief summary), and it is especially hard to enforce regulations there given the difficult conditions in which coast guards and other enforcement agencies must operate. Yet the issues surrounding Jūros Vilkas’ detention are complex. Supposedly, the ship’s crew thought they had been operating in the “donut hole” – the area of high seas in between the Russian and Norwegian EEZs in the Barents Sea, visible in the map above. In fact, however, the ship had illegally crossed into Russia’s EEZ, whose boundaries changed after the 2010 treaty with Norway to delimit the former “grey zone” in the Barents.

Russia notified the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission of the change, but according to The Baltic Course, the commission did not alert its member states, Lithuania among them, of this development. Alas, the view from Murmansk seems to be that there will be no forgiving buffer zones for wayward ships accused of illegal fishing in the Russian Arctic (even though Russian fishermen have themselves been described as “members of ‘the international mafia‘”). One has to wonder whether any of the Lithuanian and Russian fishermen who were onboard Jūros Vilkas are sitting in the same cells in the Murmansk detention center that the so-called Greenpeace “Arctic 30″ occupied for three months beginning one year ago.


Lines in the water

While detaining a foreign ship for illegal fishing is common practice around the world, Jūros Vilkas is being held in Murmansk on a bail of 2.25 million euros – an amount some might say is unreasonable since it is two to three times the value of the ship. Furthermore, last year, Chinese processors were buying snow crab from Alaska for around $5 a pound. If prices are comparable in the Barents, then the Lithuanian vessel’s total 15-ton catch, however illegal, was worth only $150,000.

The actions of the Russian coast guard fit the larger logic of Russia’s tough defense of its borders and, importantly, natural resources. When Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise was detained and its members prosecuted in court, the NGO’s executive director called it stiffest response his organization had encountered from a government since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. Soon after Arctic Sunrise’s detentionRussian President Vladimir Putin signed a law allowing oil and gas corporations to establish their own private security forces to defend their infrastructure.

Today, there are thousands of segments of the Berlin Wall on display around the world. According to the head of a German NGO devoted to the Berlin Wall’s remembrance, it is “the only monument that exists on all continents,” except possibly Antarctica.” [1] But the real question we should be asking is not where those concrete slabs are displayed. Rather, the question is, where are the invisible traces of the Wall?

The answer, sadly and increasingly, seems to be in the Arctic.

Notes

[1] The Economist. The Berlin Wall: Twenty-five years on.” (Nov. 8, 2014)