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By John Helmer in Moscow

King Canute inherited his throne in Scandinavia from a powerful father. He is well thought of for having invaded northwestern England twice in the 11th century, and been in charge there for a relatively peaceful seven years. But if Canute’s reputation is safe onshore, it’s his offshore move that has gone down in history with ambiguous effect.

Canute is said to have placed his throne on a beach and demonstrated to his courtiers the limits of a king’s power by failing to turn back the sea and getting his feet wet. Over time, the story has been changed to suggest that Canute had gotten too big for his boots, believing he could command the sea, and was, therefore, surprised when those boots started to ship water.

There was no whisper of Canute’s name when President Dmitry Medvedev was in Norway last week (April 26), and announced that he had signed a successful end to a generation-long negotiation with the Norwegs to demarcate the frontier line between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea. Possibly Medvedev was feeling hard-pressed for Scandinavian public relations effect to match Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s performance the month earlier when he had raced Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen to the the bridge of a banana boat moored at a St. Petersburg dock.

It was also omitted from Medvedev’s media performance in Oslo that Putin had beaten him in April 2008, when he signed the ratification instrument described at the time as resolving the demarcation disputes between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea. What Putin did, according to a spokesman for the International Affairs Committee of the State Duma, was relatively limited: “this agreement was not related to the territorial delimitation disputes. It just sets the borders where they already were by decree of 1957. That leaves the disputed territory of 155,000 square kilometers.”

Putin’s signature completed ratification after the Duma, followed by the Federation Council, agreed to the delimitation of the border in the disputed Varanger fjord area of the Barents Sea, which had been negotiated and signed in July 2007. That settled the border between the two countries in the inner or western part of the fjord. An earlier treaty, signed in 1957, settled the border line in the outer or eastern part of the fjord.

Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the upper house’s international affairs committee, claimed the new agreement gave Russia “an additional 26 kilometers of maritime territory.”

Drawing border lines in the sea in this area is complicated by a century of dispute between Russia, Sweden, Finland, and then Norway over the twists and turns of the coastline, and the presence of small islands. The bottom-line reason for the attempted delimitation in 1957 was fishing by vessels from the Norwegian and Soviet sides.

Since then, though, the problem of agreeing on how to draw the border line turned into the much bigger problem of how the extension of that line 200 kilometres into the Barents Sea would affect each side’s interest in drilling for oil and gas on the seabed and continental shelf. So long as neither Oslo nor Moscow’s commercial interests didn’t extend to seabed energy rights, the two sides could continue negotiating, and delay coming to a conclusion.

In the late 1980s, the Soviet government proposed a joint development scheme for the disputed seabed area. But the Norwegs rejected that idea, even though they had accepted a parallel scheme for joint development of seabed energy with Iceland. The difference between the two was Cold War politics. Norway, a NATO member, refused to accept joint territorial development schemes with the USSR. Then when the USSR was no more, and Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia, the Norwegs claimed all previous line-drawing efforts had been biased in favour of Moscow. The technical argument was over Norway’s insistence on drawing an equidistant line, and Russia’s insistence on the special or exceptional features of the land, shore, tide, shelf, fisheries, and other factors, all of which precluded accepting such a line.

When crude oil and gas prices were low, the high cost of developing oil and gasfield projects to lift the presumed treasure on the Barents seabed deterred both sides, and encouraged them to continue talking without settling. That isn’t the case any longer.

But have the Russian Law of the Sea negotiators and their Norwegian counterparts, plus Medvedev, managed to do more in the two years that have elapsed than their predecessors? The Norwegian Embassy in Moscow, like Norwegs in the past, don’t like to be specific about the delimitation lines and their extension to seabed rights. The telephone at the Embassy rings like the tide of the sea, and is as unresponsive as Canute found it.

So here’s what Medvedev’s courtier, Sergei Prikhodko, claimed the president wanted to do in Oslo: “Among the key issues is cooperation in energy, fishing, environment protection, nuclear and radiation security. The delimitation of sea territories in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean will be given special attention.” Medvedev claimed in an interview with a Norwegian newspaper that he thought a “reasonable compromise” could be negotiated. This has been obvious for a century – and beside the point for equally long.

Indra Overland, a Norwegian expert on Russia and on energy politics in the Arctic, commented that she doesn’t expect the signing of a final agreement on the seabed demarcation any time soon.

Medvedev’s press office isn’t capable of answering requests for clarification. His last big moment in Norwegian affairs was in January 2008, just before Medvedev was elected president, when he talked tough on fishing rights in the Barents Sea. At the time, Medvedev was visiting Murmansk port on an election campaign stop. He arrived just before the affair of the Russian arrest of the Norwegian fishing trawler Geir. That incident occurred on January 28, 2008, when Russian customs and border agents boarded the vessel, and obliged it to make for Murmansk port. The master then signed a statement of responsibility, paid a fine of Rb20,000 ($816), and was allowed to leave. Just days before Medvedev had called for tougher enforcement of fishing and maritime border zone violations in the Barents Sea.

Three years earlier, in October 2005, a Russian cod trawler, the Electron, refused to put into a Norwegian port after being boarded by Norwegian enforcement agents. On that occasion, the Russians set sail for home, obliging the Norwegs to come with them to Murmansk. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said at the time: “We have never agreed to the parameters that the Norwegians set unilaterally.” Subsequently, in September 2007, the Supreme Court in Oslo ruled that the Norwegian government had over-extended its territorial powers for the arrest of Russian fishing vessels.

How much credit is due to Medvedev for what happened in Oslo last week depends on what happened. The Foreign Ministry spokesman in Moscow, Andrei Nesterenko, had this to say on April 28, after Medvedev had returned home. After the public relations terms, future tenses, and hypotheticals, Nesterenko conceded there is no treaty agreement on delimitation yet, and so no deal on who can drill for oil or where.

“Undoubtedly,”said Nesterenko in a prepared statement, “the agreement signifies a tangible breakthrough in bilateral relations and takes them to new horizons of joint activity in the development of natural resources in the northern shelf areas in conditions of the clear bounds of jurisdiction of Russia and Norway.

“The delegations have preliminarily agreed on a draft treaty concerning delimitation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean, which has been the object of negotiations for over forty years. It is essentially about delimiting nearly all of the Barents Sea and a part of the Arctic Ocean. The size of the disputed area, i.e., the area between the initial claims of the sides is very imposing – more than 175000 square kilometers. An important substantive point: it is not the states’ territory that is being delimited, but their continental shelf, including beyond the 200 mile limit, and the exclusive economic zones.

“The overall disputed area is divided into two parts of approximately the same size: about 88000 square kilometers for either party. As a result of the delimitation our countries in this vast maritime area will, at last, have clear outer limits of their exclusive economic zones and continental shelf.

“The delimitation is also essential from the viewpoint of pushing forward our submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. As follows from its recommendations received by us, only after the entry into force of a maritime delimitation treaty with Norway can the outer limit of the continental shelf of Russia in this part of the Arctic be fixed.

“The delimitation will create a favorable legal environment for developing the oil and gas resources of the Arctic continental shelf. As is known, a moratorium on exploration for and development of oil and gas deposits has been operating in the disputed area over the last thirty years. This moratorium will end upon conclusion of the delimitation treaty. The agreement reached by the two delegations envisions adoption of detailed rules and procedures for Russian-Norwegian cooperation in the development of deposits that will be cut across by the delimitation line. In fact, this is about a joint regime of their exploitation.

“There is a common understanding that the conclusion of a treaty on delimitation shall not adversely affect the fishing opportunities of either side. This principled moment is set forth in the draft treaty. After its entry into force, the Russian-Norwegian basic agreements of 1975-1976 will remain in effect for at least another fifteen years (with a possible extension for subsequent six-year periods). Accordingly, the Joint Russian-Norwegian Fisheries Commission will continue to work, determining overall catch-limits, fishing quotas and fishing regulations.

“The sides have committed themselves to act so that fishing continues in a stable manner, with due regard for the interests of the people of the coastal regions traditionally engaged in this activity. Completing the delimitation of the exclusive economic zones creates more explicit and understandable legal conditions for fishing and will objectively narrow the probability of conflict situations in this sphere.

“The delegations will soon finish technical work on the text of the draft treaty, thus opening the way for its early conclusion.”

Nesterenko is a professional who speaks to professionals with all the clarity and ambiguity required by his topic. That last line leaves open to question what the lawyer in Medvedev was doing in Oslo, and to whom he thought he was speaking.

It looks like he gulled the Financial Times though. That newspaper, which likes to depict Medvedev as its preferred candidate to rule Russia, compared with the man who really does, editorialized on April 30: “The two countries’ maritime frontier was in dispute until this week. The contested area – west of the equidistant line between the territories but within the cone from Russia’s coast to the North pole – is to be divided equally, giving each country full sovereignty on its side of the division. Ending the
aberration of undefined borders is of intrinsic political benefit to both countries.”

In case the readers of the FT failed to grasp the global significance of Medvedev’s triumph over a century of provincial or colonial aberration, the London promotion claims that nothing legal now stands in the way of the Norweg appetite: “Many will be more immediately excited by the prospect that the compromise, agreed during a visit to Oslo by the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, throws the door open to oil and gas production in a large swath of the Barents Sea. Further exploration and eventual extraction of resources is no longer hindered by legal uncertainties. Stopping this sea from lying fallow may bring significant new revenues – especially to Russia, whose side is thought to hold more resources – and opportunities for Norway’s oil companies, hungry for new pastures to replace their dwindling North Sea reserves.

“The political reward for Russia is particularly important. Showing that it can pursue its national interest within accepted legal rules makes it harder to dismiss it as a land-grabbing colonial power from the 19th century. Accepting this deal – which Norway has probably been willing to conclude for years – matches Russia’s new tendency to adopt a mellower tone in how it conducts foreign policy elsewhere.

“It is to be hoped that the Russian leadership is reconsidering Machiavelli’s advice that it is better to be feared than loved. A firm commitment to the rule of law can help Russia achieve more of its goals – if it practises it as much at home and with other states as it does with Norway.”

There is one postscript to the FT’s enthusiasm for unrestrained offshore oil drilling by those untutored by Machiavelli, which the newspaper editorialist omitted to disclose. And that is the promotion of the former FT editor Andrew Gowers to current spokesman of British Petroleum (BP). As the largest oilspill ever to strike the coast of the United States heads from BP’s exploded wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico, Gowers said: “We are 150 per cent focused on fighting it below the sea, by stopping the well that’s leaking. We’re concentrated in fighting it in the offshore, containing and preventing the slick from spreading and we’re focused on preventing it from reaching the shore and as it does reach the shore, minimising and cleaning up the damage.”

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