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Balkan powder keg

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After the NATO aggression against Serbia and Montenegro in 1999, the United States of America, having established full control over the Balkans, shifted its focus after 2000 to the Middle East. The United States continued to be heavily present in the Balkans, but indirectly through its allies, who continued their policy of expanding NATO and the European Union. The separation of Montenegro from the state union with Serbia in 2006 and the proclamation of the independence of Kosovo in 2008 definitely influenced the change in geopolitical relations in the region. Namely, by the territorial “narrowing down and economic weakening” of Serbia, the United States significantly weakened Serbian influence on the neighboring countries, thereby affecting the establishment of a regional balance. Furthermore, the third round of NATO enlargement, with the membership of Croatia and Albania in NATO in 2009, as well as with Montenegro’s entry into NATO in 2017, the United States has in a geostrategic view “rounded up” the area of the Western Balkans, geopolitically extremely important for the control of the Adriatic basin, the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region.

For some time it’s clear that the power of the West is weakening in the world, and these changes are also felt in the Balkans. Lately voting at the Interpol assembly showed that the political West no longer has the power it had until recently. Or, as it said Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic, ” it turned out that it was not enough that some great powers send requests and that all fulfill and support all their demands”. For the West neither did help the open pressure towards some countries.

The West has not become military and economically weak, the budget for the military is on the contrary increased, however, in the meantime, two superpowers, Russia and China appeared. It is clear that the world slowly becomes multipolar. What is important to emphasize is that the West is losing soft power in the Balkans. And without soft power, Western policy in the Balkans shows the true face. This was best seen on October 19 in the Macedonian Parliament, when the Macedonian parliament passed constitutional changes that allowed the country to be called Republic of Northern Macedonia. To change the name, voted 80 MPs, thus reaching a two-thirds majority of 120 MPs needed to initiate constitutional changes. On which way this two-thirds majority was reach in the Macedonian Parliament, is best seen by the tweet of the Greek Defense Minister Panos Kamenos: “Who could think that in the European value system and democracy those who do not vote by the orders are arrested and voters who are obedient receive a bonus of two million euros of ‘dirty money’. I am ashamed”. This tweet of the Greek Defense Minister shows how Western diplomats achieve their goals in the Balkans. The result of this vote will be that (Northern) Macedonia will sign the NATO Membership Protocol in January 2019, after which formal negotiations on NATO accession could begin as well as the ratification process in the parliaments of all 29 member states, which could mean that (Northern) Macedonia could become a full member by 2020. And that will mean that the NATO ring around Serbia and Republic of Srpska (Bosnia and Hercegovina)  will be completely closed. Since in Serbia is the lowest support for joining NATO, it will be left as the last state to join NATO.

Pressures in Bosnia and Herzegovina have already begun. Despite the fact that Republic of Srpska voted a resolution on neutrality in October 2017, NATO recently sent Bosnia and Herzegovina an action plan for NATO membership. The realization of the First Annual National Program would increase financial obligations, from the current 1.33% of GDP, Bosnia and Hercegovina would have to allocate for defense from 1.8% to 2.2% of GDP, which would certainly be a new blow to the economy of this impoverished state union.

Today in the Balkans, there are two hot spots: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. In spite of the fact that many analysts consider Kosovo as the source of possible major disorders, in reality it is Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are strong international forces in Kosovo, and there can only be a minor or limited conflict. This is primarily related to the violent takeover of northern Kosovo by the Kosovo Army. But in Bosnia and Hercegovina, things are completely different. Today’s Bosnia and Hercegovina is the result of the Dayton Agreement. An agreement that ended the war, but did not offer a better future for the citizens of Bosnia and Hercegovina. What’s more, it is the reason for the permanent conflict between the constituent nations of Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats. One of the most basic principles on which the Dayton Agreement was based on is the division of Bosnia and Hercegovina (51% of the territory to the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, 49% to Republic of Srpska). And Republic of Srpska is under strong pressure from the West, because of strong anti-NATO position.

Unrest in the Balkans

Recently, the leader of the Bosniaks Bakir Izetbegovic spoke about arming: “Poor neighbors spend money on expensive weapons. You see these rocket systems and planes in Serbia and Croatia, and we must keep the balance in all of this, because weakness attracts”,Izetbegovic said.

This is also indicated by the arming of Croatian armed forces in recent years. The Pentagon donated Croatia 16 OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters, used for observation, utility and direct fire support. The obligation of Croatia was  to pay all the taxes and the pilot training: the price tag – 30 million dollars. Croatia also has acquired Patria armorued personnel vehicles, the self-propeled PzH Howitzers and signed a contract to buy 12 used F-16 Barak fighter jets from Israel. In the meantime, US has blocked the delivery of Israeli fighter jets because the Israelis have upgraded them. In any case, Croatia has decided to acquire a squadron of fighter jets. Apart from the above, Croatia will get from Unated Stated two tactical transport helicopters UH-60 Black Hawk, also under very favorable conditions. Also the Croatian Army has held comprehensive inter-service joint exercise of all components of the Croatian Armed Forces titled “Velebit 18 – Joint Force” which is the largest military exercise of Croatian army since the end of the war. It was conducted continuously for 72 hours from 13 to 15 October 2018 on multiple locations in the Republic of Croatia. It engaged a total of 5,500 members of the Croatian Armed Forces, including the reserve component. Croatian Army tested the attained level of capabilities pertaining  the defence of the national territory and to test the newly introduced weapons and equipment. However, bearing in mind that in NATO there is the principe of collective defense, which means that if someone threatens the security of Croatia, NATO is obliged to defend it, a logical question arises why Croatia should invest significant money in the purchase of arms as well as in serious military exercises. Especially having in mind that Croatia is at the bottom end of scale when it comes to EU countries economies. People are leaving Croatia, mostly young educated people. The answer is pretty clear, when we see that this process is done with strategic cooperation with United States.

The dramatic armament of Croatia has significantly disturbed the balance of power in the Balkans. So Serbia also began with serious equipping and arming. That could be seen on combined tactical exercise with combat shooting ”The Century of Winners 1918-2018” which was held at the Pester provisional testing range, on which Serbia marked the 100th anniversary of the victory in the First World War but also sent a clear message. It was one of the largest military exercises in the region, which included 8,000 members of the Serbian Armed Forces, with around 645 combat systems. The exercise has simultaneosly taken place in ten locations in Serbia where air force and infantry troops performed planned, training and combat activities with the engagement of 100 tanks, 100 combat vehicles, 100 artillery systems and with the ground and air defence missile systems.

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin stated that in 2018 Serbia has introduced in service nine fighter jets “MIG 29” and that in accordance with the agreement on military-technical cooperation with Belarus, in 2019 another four fighter jets “MIG 29” of the same type will be delivered. Agreements on the purchase of four Mi-35 combat helicopters and three transport Mi-17 B5 from Russia were concluded also. In the middle of the 2019 will be delivered the first H145M medium-sized military multirole helicopter. However, the most important will be the acquisition of the Pantsir-S missile system, a self-propelled, medium range surface-to-air missile system. Should be noted, that Serbia as the only state in the Balkans that proclaimed neutrality, is forced to have a trained and equipped army.

And that the weapons in the Balkans is not acquired just like that, shows the statement of European Union Commision chief Jean-Claude Juncker who warned at the beginning of October 2018 of a possible new war in the Balkans if Bosnia, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo do not feel the EU is serious about offering them future membership.

“If, in Europe’s highly complicated landscape, the impression arises, that we’re not serious about offering the prospect of EU membership to the western Balkans, then we might see later – and probably even sooner – what we saw in Balkans in the 1990s,’’ Juncker said in a speech to the Austrian parliament. In other words, if the West does not control the Balkans, war can become reality. In the coming period, the tensions will only grow in the Balkans, and there is a real chance that if the West can not achieve its goals peacefully, it will do it violently, as they did in Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia in the near past.  Without any doubt, pressure on Serbs will be getting stronger. That is why it requires a stronger presence of Russia in the Balkans, primarily in Serbia and Republic of Srpska.

First published in our partner International Affairs

Slavisha Batko Milacic is a historian and independent analyst. He has been doing analytics for years, writing in Serbian and English about the situation in the Balkans and Europe. Slavisha Batko Milacic can be contacted at email: varjag5[at]outlook.com

Europe

European Union Could Share its Solid Economic Benefits with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia

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European Union has, at least by territory and population, expanded as the European Council overwhelmingly decided to grant Moldova and Ukraine, with the possibility of Georgia, candidates’ status to join the bloc. Current, the European Union consists of 27 members and has an estimated total population of about 447 million. Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, all former Soviet republics, will together add approximately 50.8 million to the current population of the European Union.

As former Soviet republics, the three attained their political independence and within the international laws, must be considered with respect based on the principles of their territorial integrity and national sovereignty. While the granting them their new status after official requests from them, it has indeed sparked debates especially in the Russian Federation. 

European Union leaders have formally agreed to grant candidate status to Ukraine, as well as Moldova, although the two former Soviet republics face a long path before joining the bloc. Ukraine applied to join the bloc just days after the Russian invasion on 24 February, and the process from application to candidacy has gone through at record speed.

Undoubtedly the new status has opened wide, most possibly, better doors and a platform to spring up with economic development through integration into European Union. President of the European Council, Charles Michel, noted: “it is a historic moment, today marks a crucial step on your path towards the European Union. Our future is together.”

The official congratulated the leaders of Ukraine and Moldova. Regarding Georgia, the European Council “decided to recognize the European perspective of Georgia and is ready to grant candidate status once the outstanding priorities are addressed,” Michel said. “Congratulations to the Georgian people,” he said. “A historic moment in EU-Georgia relations: Georgia’s future lies within the EU.”

The European Commission on June 17 recommended that the summit grant a candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. It is a “symbol of hope” to support the Ukrainians while the country had a long way to go before actual accession. A few days later, Speaker of Moldova Parliament, Igor Grosu, announced that Moldova ready to join new sanctions, mostly in finance and banking, against Russia.

“We will show solidarity with the EU, as our status and European aspirations oblige us. Of course, we will join [any new sanctions] meant to stop the military operation. We are seeking to contribute to this goal by any diplomatic means,” Grosu said following a decision by the EU.

Moldova’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicu Popescu earlier said the East European nation could not fully join anti-Russian sanctions due to its weak economy. European Union candidate status now provides Moldova with access to world’s most developed market. It offers similar new economic opportunities to bothe Ukraine and Georgia.

In one of her warm-hearted illuminating speeches at a media briefing, President Maia Sandu emphasized: “Candidate country status gives us a clear direction of our development, support on this path, and most importantly, hope. We are a small and vulnerable country, which would feel more secure when it becomes part of the European family, in which we could count on support from all members and institutions. Belonging to the EU also means access to the richest and the most developed market in the world.” 

Moldova, however, expects more support from the European Union to improve the wellbeing of its people and provide preconditions for developing the business environment. “The situation will not change overnight after candidate status has been granted, as a lot of hard work is still ahead,” Sandu said, attributing the current hardships in Moldova to the conflict in Ukraine that began late February.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the news as “a unique and historic moment”, adding “Ukraine’s future is within the EU” while the French President Emmanuel Macron said that the decision by EU leaders sent a “very strong signal” to Russia that Europeans support Ukraine’s pro-Western aspirations.

At least, they have joined the ‘European family’ that offers practical warmth for sustainable development. Ukraine has already signed an agreement with the European Union on joining its LIFE Program, an international funding instrument for the environment and climate action, whose budget on environment protection projects for 2021-2027 amounts to €5.43 billion, Ukrainian media reported with reference to the Environment Protection and Natural Resources Ministry.

Ukrainian Environment Protection Minister Ruslan Strilets and European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevicius signed the agreement.The ministry has over 15 concrete proposals to be transformed into relevant projects to be presented for consideration under LIFE Program.

“Ukraine has received great support and colossal capabilities from the European Union for restoring not only the environment but also live nature in Ukraine. This is something for which there has always been a lack of funding. LIFE is a powerful financial tool of the participating countries. This means great confidence in Ukraine,” Strilets said. “This should help us develop more new projects which local businesses could be engaged with. Therefore, we’ve made a very important step today.”

In the near future Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia have the possibility to access the benefits from the Global Gateway, a new European strategy directed at boosting smart, clean and secure links in digital, energy and transport sectors and to strengthen health, education and research systems across the world.

It is in line with the commitment of the G-7 leaders from June 2021 to launch a values-driven, high-standard and transparent infrastructure partnership to meet global infrastructure development needs. The Global Gateway is also fully aligned with the UN’s Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement.

In addition, late June the he Group of Seven economic powers – the U.S., Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, Canada and Japan – made some progress in bringing their counterparts from their five guest countries closer to Western views on sanctions against Russia. The G-7 is committing  themselves to support the new members especially Ukraine. 

Ahead of his trip, Biden authorized another US$450 million in weaponry to be sent to Ukraine, bringing the total U.S. commitment to US$6.1 billion since the start of the war. Offering a concrete template, the G-7 combined are aiming to invest US$600 billion in public and private capital for infrastructure projects over the next five years, with US$200 billion of that total coming from the United States.

According to European lawmakers interviewed by local Russian media Izvestia, this step has broad support from the EU. Meanwhile, Russia views the move ambiguously. On the one hand, it sees EU membership as tantamount to striving for NATO, on the other hand, European integration is a purely economic issue and does not raise any concerns.

“We’ll see, we’ll analyze the consequences,” former Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told Izvestia. “The context is important; it is not as harmless as it might have seemed three years ago. Decisions are being made amid a sanctions offensive and against everything Russian,” he added.

That being said, the European Union noted that obtaining candidate status is only the first step towards membership. Engin Eroglu, a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the European Parliament, in an interview with Izvestia said that the process of gaining membership to the EU does not mean automatic entry, but it means that the country has started pro-European processes and reforms, which are partially financed by Brussels.

The granting of candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova has angered other countries that have been striving to join the European Union for several years now. For example, the European Commission has so far denied this status to Georgia, the newspaper writes.

“Tbilisi, to put it mildly, was not happy about the refusal, but this will not be a reason for any deterioration in relations between the European Union and Georgia,” Head of the Department of Integration Studies at Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO) Nikolay Kaveshnikov told Izvestia.

Russia consistently expresses fierce opposition to this European membership over the past several years. President Vladimir Putin had declared Ukraine to be part of Moscow’s sphere and insisted he was acting due to attempts to bring the country into NATO, the Western alliance that comes with security guarantees.

Granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status to join the European Union looks like nothing more than a scam by the West, according to Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “Scam is such a wonderful word, seeing that the numerous decisions taken by the West are more like combination of a destructive, provocative nature, rather than well-thought-out steps,” the diplomat said, speaking to the Sputnik Radio.

“I think that’s certainly their case,” she added, “Given these maneuvers, these zigzags that we now are witnessing from the West with regards to Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, it is no longer necessary to prove anything in terms of market conditions. There is a direct link between economics and politics. And this is exactly what they have always stood against.” She described the actions by the European Union as infringement of Russia’s territorial integrity, and as encroachment on former Soviet space and territory.

On the distinctive opposite side, Russia sees no risks for itself in the fact that Ukraine and Moldova have been granted EU candidate status, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a press conference following talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov on June 24 in Baku.

“Our position has always been that the European Union is not a political bloc, unlike NATO. The development of its relations with any countries that wish to do so does not create any threats and risks for us,” Lavrov said in reply to a media question. “Of course, we will realistically consider the European Union’s behavior and monitor the real steps it takes and how the candidate countries act: whether they comply with these requirements or still try to show their independence.”

These new European Union members have some strategic significance. Moldova is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe. It shares borders with Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north. Ukraine, with a coastline along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to the south and southeast, respectively could be used for economic benefits by the European Union.

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EU-Australia Relations: Strategic Security Cooperation

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Over the last decade, security cooperation between Australia and the EU has grown. Increasing security and defence cooperation with governments outside the EU is something that the EU has looked into. Third-country participation in the “Common Security and Defence Policy” CSDP civilian and military crisis management missions and operations, as well as the exchange of sensitive information, are all examples of this.

Australia participates in CSDP missions and exchanges classified information with the EU. This emphasis on ties with other countries is a key aspect of EU Global Strategy, which asks its allies to assist promote the rule-based global order. “External partnerships” must be restructured and the EU must “engage with key partners, likeminded countries, and regional groupings” in order to share this responsibility.

Australia stated that it would work with “like-minded” friends like the European Union to address global concerns. The EU’s security mandate relies heavily on crisis management. For the EU to be seen and effective in managing crises, it must be able to draw in non-EU countries and establish links with them. Third-country participation in CSDP missions and the signing of Framework Participation Agreements on crisis management show how actors outside the EU regard the EU as a crisis management actor and validate the EU’s crisis management function.

The EU’s external measures to safeguard freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights must have this external validation if they are to gain “credibility and normative significance.” To “strengthen its own ability to bear responsibility and share the cost with security and defence partners,” the EU needs the support of third countries. European Union “strategic autonomy” refers to the EU’s ability to act and collaborate with international and regional partners but also working independently when necessary, according to the EU’s Security and Defence Implementation Plan, published in November 2016. EU credibility is bolstered as a result.

Ad hoc agreements, which took a long time to draft, are now the preferred method of enabling participation, instead of the time-consuming ad hoc agreements that were previously used. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced the beginning of FPA negotiations with EU counterparts, Catherine Ashton, saying that “North Africa & Middle East have highlighted the value in Australia & EU cooperating closely to react to international crises” at the time of the announcement.

The EU and Australia, according to the FPA, share a common understanding of the threats they face and the objectives they should focus on. Australian participation in two CSDP missions has been made possible by this convergence. Some argue whether or not the European Union and Australia see each other as strategic or priority partners in the fight against global and interconnected security threats, as well as whether or not their geographical domains of interests and aims align.

In two CSDP missions, Australia’s involvement has been capped (and duration as with EUCAP Nestor). CSDP military operations are not permitted. EU crisis management will take a new step forward with participation by Australia in a CSDP military mission. The EU CSDP’s military efforts have primarily focused on developing military capabilities or deploying naval forces. As long as EU member states are unwilling to engage in large-scale military operations, this pattern will continue.

A naval operation in the Strait of Hormuz has been proposed recently by the EU as a means of protecting freedom of navigation and calming tensions between Iran and the United States. We could see Australia participating in an EU military operation as this occurs. As seen by its August 2019 decision to join the US-led mission in the Strait of Hormuz, Australia has a strategic interest in maintaining marine flow.

The EU-Australia security partnership is strengthened because to FPA. European Union and Australian cooperation will have a solid foundation thanks to the FPA, which recognizes common interests in international peace and security. Both EUCAP Nestor and EUAM Iraq have involved Australia in crisis management, but more effort is required. Both parties must agree that Australia will be invited to more than just these two missions. The EU’s CSDP missions are strengthened by its partners, who help the EU to be a responsible global actor. However, it also makes it necessary for Australia and the EU to work together more closely to identify common interests on a variety of issues.

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Finnish Plans for an Arctic Railway  –  Geopolitics Are Intervening

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Authors: Juho Kähkönen and Soili Nystén-Haarala*

NATO Applicant Finland is an Arctic Country with No Access to the Arctic Ocean.

Finland, with a land border with Norway, Sweden, and Russia, is sometimes described as an island because it is located on the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland and the eastern coast of the Gulf of Bothnia of the Baltic Sea. The 832-mile border with Russia has gained plenty of attention in the present geopolitical situation. The lifeline from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea goes through the narrow Danish Straits. Finnish cargo is mainly transported to and from the ports of the Baltic Sea. Before the war on Ukraine, Finnish trains ran to the east up to China through Russia.

Access to the Arctic Ocean is limited to the narrow roads through Norway, which are not qualified for the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), the major European transport corridors. The closest European TEN-T corridor turns west to Sweden at the bottom of the Gulf of Bothnia. Knowing this, it is no wonder that dreams of access to the Arctic Ocean emerge every now and then.

Map of existing infrastructure

Most recently, the idea was embraced  when the government of Juha Sipilä, with Anne Berner as the Minister of Transportation and Communications, was in power (May 2015 – June 2019). Anne Berner negotiated the future of transportation infrastructure and the Arctic Ocean railway with her Nordic colleagues in Norway and Sweden. In the early phases, the regional politicians in Finnish Lapland mostly either supported or adopted a positively curious attitude towards the proposed railway.

Nevertheless, the plan was later buried with both Norwegian and Finnish reports for their respective ministries in 2018. The reports found the plan lacked feasibility because of excessive costs. However, the Regional Council of Lapland still wanted to maintain the option for a railway in their regional plan. This attempt finally failed in 2021, and the plan was officially buried also in Lapland. The discussion on the plan was strongly polarized between the supporters and the opponents.

Vision of Arctic Railway

The way the prospects of the plan were presented reflected the ideas of economic connectivity and interdependence between Europe, Russia, and China – dreams, which after the Russian brutal attack on Ukraine turned out to be built on false perceptions of an economically dependent Russian Bear and an everlasting peace in Europe. Even after the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, the future was full of expectations for economic prosperity; the opening of the Northeast Passage shortening the distance between Rotterdam and Shanghai by 26 percent and between Rotterdam and Yokohama by 37 percent. In addition to the railway, there is a plan to build a tunnel from Helsinki to Tallinn under the seabed. The Arctic railway, together with the tunnel, would connect the Asian and European markets through Finland and the melting Northeast Passage.

Chinese funding was sought for both of these mega infrastructure investments in railroad transportation. Chinese investments in Finland, however, have almost all failed, either because of financial difficulties of the Chinese investors or reservations of the Finnish Military and the Ministry of Defense. For some reason, both Chinese and Russian investments in land property often happened to target areas of strategic military importance. Additionally, one of the five options for the Arctic Ocean railway presented in the reports from 2018 was building a connection across the border to the Murman railway connecting Murmansk and St. Petersburg. The connection was not considered dangerous because rails are easy to dismantle, and cyberwar is a more likely prospect than traditional land warfare. However, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has shown that land warfare in Europe has not disappeared, and Russian military forces might arrogantly try to invade the country across the whole 832-mile-long border.

However, the actual opening of the Northeast Passage is, under any circumstances, still far in the future. It is not yet possible to navigate those dangerous waters without the expensive aid of Russian ice-breakers. Furthermore, European politicians turned a blind eye to the growing geopolitical tensions,  for instance, the increasing threat of nuclear weapons in the Kola Peninsula next to Finnish and Norwegian borders. Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that the Arctic and its raw materials are of highly strategic military and economic importance for Russia. Even after the occupation of Crimea in 2014, Arctic cooperation was in the Arctic Council maintained as “the separate island of cooperation” while political tensions between superpowers increased. The Russian attack on Ukraine underlines the political risks associated with the transportation routes through the Russian economic zone. It is no wonder Finland is now applying for NATO membership, and developing the eastern transportation connection is forgotten.

National Interests Suppress Indigenous Rights

The Arctic Railway plan met strong resistance from the Sámi people, the only Indigenous people in Europe. As the supreme political body of the Sámi in Finland, the Sámi Parliament saw the railway as a threat to their culture and the reindeer herding in the heart of their culture. Oddly enough, the resistance and support from such allies as the Greenpeace seemed to come as a surprise to the supporters of the railway in Helsinki.

The region itself has a long history of ignoring the Sámi and seeing them as troublemakers resisting plans to develop the region. The Sámi are a small nation (77 00 – 103 00 depending on calculations) living in the northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. In Finland there are slightly more than 10 000 registered Sámi who vote in the elections of the Sámi Parliament.

Reindeer herding is a livelihood that requires much space as pastureland; reindeer can move freely in forests, which mainly belong to the State in the Finnish Lapland. Reindeers migrate and live with lichen, plants, and mushrooms. These half-tame animals are the property of reindeer herders, which as a profession is not ethnicity-based in Finland. Reindeer herding increasingly competes with other industries and infrastructure building. Reindeer herding is not just a traditional livelihood but also an industry in the market economy. Although the Sámi lives in a modern way in mixed communities, they still have strong kinship ties and an awareness of their own culture, which is distinct from the mainstream culture. The railway building option (Rovaniemi – Kirkenes) the Finnish Government preferred would have crossed the area of several Sámi reindeer herding cooperatives and disconnected the reindeer migration routes. It would have weakened the profitability of reindeer herding, a livelihood that has kept the remote areas of Lapland inhabited.

Throughout history, the Sámi have experienced racism and contempt from the main population. Their languages were not taught at schools before the 1970s. Just like Indigenous children in North America, they were sent to boarding schools, far away from home, to study in Finnish. Their voices were not heard, and their rights were not respected, for example, when the rivers in Lapland were harnessed for waterpower and forests were cut because of national interest after the World War II. Bad treatment has left scars and a considerable mistrust of the state power. The Sámi have fought for their rights in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, however, and have managed to make the state power recognize their rights.

In the new Finnish Constitution of 1994, the Sámi were granted cultural autonomy. A special Homeland Area was established in Upper Lapland. Within this area, the Sámi have the right to education in their own languages and the right to deal with authorities and in courts in their languages. They also have a Sámi Parliament, the representative self-government body, which plans and implements the cultural self-government guaranteed to the Sámi as an Indigenous people. The Sámi Parliament must be consulted when any project in the Homeland might affect their culture.

Reindeer herding and, for example, fishing are recognized as a part of Sámi culture. The duty to negotiation was drafted based on the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) principle of the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169). However, the Sámi Parliament and the Finnish government interpret the duty to consult differently way. The Sámi interpret the FPIC as a duty to ask for permission from the Indigenous population. The authorities, who should consult the Sámi, see it as a duty to consult and strive for a jointly agreed decision. If a joint agreement cannot be reached, the authorities can continue with the project. An even bigger problem is that authorities do not always remember to consult the Sámi. The existence of this duty is still relatively unknown, and if we add the earlier ways of conduct to ignorance, it is no wonder that the Sámi are suspicious of the Finnish state.

The Arctic railway plan is a typical example of conflicted relations between the Sámi and Finnish authorities. The sudden appearance of the plan astonished the Sámi and caused anxiety among reindeer herders about the future of their business and livelihood. The state authorities were also surprised by the strong Sámi reactions and emphasized that there was no project yet, only a discussion. The Sámi brought their position to international awareness through various media channels, while the supporters of the railway in Lapland boosted the idea to the EU and in Asia. The plan highlighted a conflict in the four municipalities of the Sámi Homeland Area, where the Sámi, with one exception, form only a minority of the population. The burial of the plan at the governmental level was mainly due to economic reasons, but abolishing the railway from the long-term regional plan can be seen as the victory of the Sámi and reindeer herding.

Is the Plan Actually Buried?

Following the Russian war on Ukraine, the multiple times buried attempt to build a railway from Finland to Norway has gained interest again. Member of Parliament from Lapland Mikko Kärnä brought the Arctic Railway back to the discussion by stressing that Finland would face significant challenges if transportation on the Baltic Sea were disturbed. This viewpoint reflects the understanding of Finland as an “island.” In practice, 80 percent of Finnish foreign trade goes through the Baltic Sea and as the transportation connection in northern Finland is poor, a railway to Norway would strengthen Finnish security of supply.

Soon after this comment, the Parliamentarian Committee on Transportation and Communication organized a visit to northernmost Finland, where the Arctic railway had been planned. The committee chair, MP Suna Kymäläinen explained the reason for the visit telling that Finland had to prepare for the scenario that traffic on the Baltic Sea would decline and analyzed how the export and import would be organized in such a situation. Currently, the roads connecting Finland to Norway are narrow and in poor condition.

The ongoing war reveals how the planned Arctic Railway is not tied only to the melting Arctic Ocean and shipping through the Northeast Passage. Instead, northern connections show how Finland is not an island but how the infrastructure development has focused on southern Finland around the capital for decades. The situation should not surprise anyone in Helsinki, as the authorities and politicians from the north have underlined for decades how weak the infrastructure in the north is and criticized how resources have been mainly used to develop southern infrastructure.

There is only one short rail track on the Finnish side still to be electrified, but the Arctic Ore Railway as well as the port of Narvik already operate at the limit of their capacity. The fact that the Swedish state mining company LKAB is already talking about strengthening the railway might indicate that the state is on board. Renovating the overloaded railway is, however, going to be a long and expensive project. Sweden has gradually built and electrified the railway from Southern Sweden to the Finnish border. The main driver of this project was the needs of the highly developed industry in northern Sweden – at least up till the port of Luleå.

The connection from Luleå to the Finnish border, however, could also have connected Sweden to the Russian market across Finland. Whereas for Finland, this track through Sweden to Narvik harbor, suddenly turned out to be a strategic corridor to the west in case the Baltic Sea corridor would close. As Sweden applied for NATO membership together with Finland, northern connections have a robust defense interest. In case of war, the Norwegian port of Narvik would be a priority to supply resources to the European Arctic. In Norway, a long-time NATO member country, the transport connections to Finland have re-emerged in the defense debate. The new geopolitical reality reveals how the northern connections would be essential for the national security of supply. However, we should not forget the rights of the Sámi people.

Geopolitics Amplify the Clash between National Interest and Sámi Rights

The discussion about the Arctic Railway reflects the polarized relationship between the Sámi and the Finnish authorities. The Sámi feel that they are never safe and that this time, their rights might be sacrificed at the shrine of national safety. Despite the new concerns about the security of supply, the state authorities now seem to take smaller, more realistic steps to improve transportation connections. A connection through the Swedish Ore Railway to Narvik in Norway is now a realistic option.

Perhaps a quicker way to improve access to the Arctic Ocean is to renovate national road 21 (E8) from Tornio to Tromsø harbor in Norway along the Swedish border. The demands to invest in the road, which is in a dangerously poor condition, had not been noticed in Helsinki before the Russian attack on Ukraine. Strengthening the existing infrastructure to the Arctic Ocean is supported in northern Finland. Improving existing roads and railways does not considerably increase the damage to reindeer herding either. The increased needs for security of supply, however, indicate that the rights of the Sámi are not the first priority in national transportation development. The Arctic Railway across the Sámi Homeland is on the agenda again. Strengthening democracy and taking the minorities’ differing worldviews seriously would be a more civilized way of coexisting in the western world and something the Nordic countries could be expected to do better.

*Soili Nystén-Haarala, Professor of Commercial Law, Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Lapland.

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