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Posted on on June 22nd, 2009
by Pincas Jawetz (

GREENLANDERS take another step towards full independence from Denmark on Sunday June 21st, the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. The 56,000 residents will be granted an expanded version of home rule, after a referendum in 2008 showed more than 75% support for the territory taking over responsibility for police, justice and security. In time Greenland, which has been ruled by Denmark since the 18th century and which continues to receive hefty subsidies, is expected to claim status as an independent country. Its large deposits of minerals, including oil and precious stones, could make the sparsely populated land particularly rich.

For background, see article

Fondly, Greenland Loosens Danish Rule

Narayan Mahon for The New York Times

Some of Greenland’s 58,000 people in Nuuk on Sunday at a ceremony giving the country powers of self-governance.

By SARAH LYALL, June 21, 2009

NUUK, Greenland — The thing about being from Greenland, said Susan Gudmundsdottir Johnsen, is that many outsiders seem to have no clue where it actually is.

Related  Times Topics: Greenland

“They say, ‘Oh, my God, Greenland?’ It’s like they’ve never heard of it,” said Ms. Johnsen, 36, who was born in Iceland but has lived on this huge, largely frozen northern island for 25 years. “I have to explain: ‘Here you have a map. Here’s Europe. The big white thing is Greenland.’  “

But Greenland, with 58,000 people and only two traffic lights, both of them here in the capital, is now securing its place in the world. On Sunday, amid solemn ceremony and giddy celebration, it ushered in a new era of self-governance that sets the stage for eventual independence from Denmark, its ruler since 1721.

The move, which allows Greenland to gradually take responsibility over areas like criminal justice and oil exploration, follows a referendum last year in which 76 percent of voters said they wanted self-rule. Many of the changes are deeply symbolic. Kalaallisut, a traditional Inuit dialect, is now the country’s official language, and Greenlanders are now recognized under international law as a separate people from Danes.

Thrillingly, the Greenlandic government now gets to call itself by its Inuit name, Naalakkersuisut — the first time in history, officials said, that the word has been used in a Danish government document.

“It’s a new relationship based on equality,” said Greenland’s new, charismatic prime minister, Kuupik Kleist, speaking of the balance of power between Greenland and Denmark.

He compared the situation to a marriage in which the wife was bossing around her henpecked husband. “From today,” he said, “the man in the house has as much say as the wife.”

But this is a delicate time, full of hope and trepidation in equal measure. Few Greenlanders graduate from college. The country is rife with social problems like alcoholism, unemployment and domestic violence. Infrastructure improvements are punishingly expensive and desperately needed in a place where, for instance, people travel by boat or plane because there are no roads connecting towns.

Meanwhile, global warming is rapidly melting the mighty icecap that covers some 80 percent of Greenland’s 840,000 square miles. Although that is destroying traditional hunting livelihoods, it also brings new opportunities for exploring and exploiting what could be vast reserves of oil and minerals deep beneath Greenland’s surface and in the waters around it.

Under the new self-government agreement, Greenland will get half of any proceeds from oil or minerals. The other half will go to Denmark, to be deducted from the grant of 3.4 billion kroner, or $637 million, that it gives Greenland each year. The hope is that eventually the subsidy can cease altogether and Greenland will be ready for independence.

The prospect of Greenland’s benefiting from what may be a lucrative oil and mineral business raises an obvious question: What’s in it for Denmark?

“It’s not a question about money,” the Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, said in an interview here. “This is a question of respecting Greenlandic people and giving them the right to decide their own destiny.”

The right to self-determination, particularly for indigenous people like Greenland’s Inuit, more commonly known as Eskimos, was a recurring theme this weekend. Two exotically dressed visitors from Norway’s Sami Parliament, which represents the country’s reindeer herders, appeared at a trade exposition here on Saturday, marveling at how far the Greenlanders had come.

“They’re many steps farther along than we are,” said Marianne Balto, Parliament’s vice president. “It gives hope to the Sami people.”

Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, was there, looking at it from the other side, recalling how his country ended hundreds of years of Danish rule with independence in 1944.

Bent Liisberg, a lawyer from Norway, which was owned for hundreds of years by Denmark and then by Sweden, had much the same perspective. On Sunday, he was carrying a backpack from which protruded a little Greenlandic flag, its red-and-white design representing the sea, sky and sun. “This is a great day for small nations,” he said.

Nuuk is a curious city, where old, brightly colored wooden houses built by the original Danish settlers coexist with rows of down-on-their-heels apartment buildings that are almost Soviet in their soullessness. Its harbor is impossibly quaint and its views breathtakingly beautiful; its center is indifferently maintained and virtually paralyzed by traffic at 8 o’clock every morning, when the workday begins.

It has 15,000 residents, and many seemed to be out and about at 7:30 a.m., when the procession down to the harbor for the self-government celebrations began. It snowed the day before — giving a strange feeling at a time of year when there is virtually no darkness — but on Sunday the sun blazed across the water.

Representatives from 17 countries and territories, including the United States and the Faroe Islands (also owned by Denmark), were there. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, wearing a traditional Inuit costume with shorts made of seal fur and a short, beaded shawl, solemnly handed over the official self-government document to the chairman of Greenland’s Parliament.

For Greenlanders, who can feel like second-class citizens in Denmark, the new arrangement bolsters a national pride they almost didn’t know they had.

“It is nothing that we will feel on a day-to-day basis, but the symbolic value of this gives people so much more confidence,” said Peter Lovstrom, 28, who works at the national art museum in Nuuk.

He said it was impossible to feel rancor toward Denmark, given all of the intermarriage and connections between the countries.

“We all get along. We have to get along,” Mr. Lovstrom said. “But I feel a bit more Greenlandic now.”

Correction: A previous version of this article contained an incorrect amount in Danish kroner for the grant given by Denmark to Greenland each year. It is 3.4 billion kroner, not million.

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Arctic nations say no Cold War; military stirs.
Reuters, Sun Jun 21, 2009 8:16pm EDT


By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) – Arctic nations are promising to avoid new “Cold War” scrambles linked to climate change, but military activity is stirring in a polar region where a thaw may allow oil and gas exploration or new shipping routes.

The six nations around the Arctic Ocean are promising to cooperate on challenges such as overseeing possible new fishing grounds or shipping routes in an area that has been too remote, cold and dark to be of interest throughout recorded history.

But global warming is spurring long-irrelevant disputes, such as a Russian-Danish standoff over who owns the seabed under the North Pole or how far Canada controls the Northwest Passage that the United States calls an international waterway.

“It will be a new ocean in a critical strategic area,” said Lee Willett, head of the Marine Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London, predicting wide competition in the Arctic area.

“The main way to project influence and safeguard interests there will be use of naval forces,” he said. Ground forces would have little to defend around remote coastlines backed by hundreds of km (miles) of tundra.

Many leading climate experts now say the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free by 2050 in summer, perhaps even earlier, after ice shrank to a record low in September 2007 amid a warming blamed by the U.N. Climate Panel on human burning of fossil fuels.

Previous forecasts had been that it would be ice-free in summers toward the end of the century.

Among signs of military concern, a Kremlin document on security in mid-May said Russia may face wars on its borders in the near future because of control over energy resources — from the Middle East to the Arctic.

Russia, which is reasserting itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union, sent a nuclear submarine in 2008 across the Arctic under the ice to the Pacific.The new class of Russian submarine is called the Borei — “Arctic Wind.”



Canada runs a military exercise, Nanook, every year to reinforce sovereignty over its northern territories. Russia faces five NATO members — the United States, Canada, Norway, Iceland and Denmark via Greenland — in the Arctic.

In February, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper criticized Russia’s “increasingly aggressive” actions after a bomber flew close to Canada before a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama.

And last year Norway’s government decided to buy 48 Lockheed Martin F-35 jets at a cost of 18 billion crowns ($2.81 billion), rating them better than rival Swedish Saab’s Gripen at tasks such as surveillance of the vast Arctic north.

Much may be at stake. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated last year that the Arctic holds 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil — enough to supply current world demand for three years.

And Arctic shipping routes could be short-cuts between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in summer even though uncertainties over factors such as icebergs, insurance costs or a need for hardened hulls are likely to put off many companies.

Other experts say nations can easily get along in the North.

“The Arctic area would be of interest in 50 or 100 years — not now,” said Lars Kullerud, President of the University of the Arctic. “It’s hype to talk of a Cold War.”

He said an area in dispute between Russia and Denmark at the North Pole was no bigger than a “grey zone” in the Barents Sea over which Russia and Norway have been at odds for decades and where seismic surveys indicate gas deposits in shallow waters.

“The talk of a new Cold War is exaggerated,” said Jakub Godzimirski, of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. “We have seen a lot of shipping traffic going all over the world without tensions,” he said.

Governments also insist a thaw does not herald tensions.

“We will seek cooperative strategies,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told Reuters during a meeting of Arctic Council foreign ministers in Tromsoe, Norway.

“We are not planning any increase in our armed forces in the Arctic,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the talks in late April, also stressing cooperation.

“Everyone can make easy predictions that when there are resources and there is a need for resources there will be conflict and scramble,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Stoere said. “It need not be that way.”

Agreeing with them that Cold War talk is overdone, Niklas Granholm of the Swedish Defense Research Agency nonetheless said: “The indications we have is that there will be an increased militarization of the Arctic.”

That would bring security spinoffs. Many may be humdrum — ensuring safety of shipping, or deployment of gear in case of oil spills such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska.

Wider possibilities include a possible race between Russia and the United States for quieter nuclear submarines.

Submarines, which can launch long-range nuclear missiles, have long had a hideout under the fringe of the Arctic ice pack where constant waves and grinding of ice masks engine noise.

“It might lead to a new generation of ultra-silent submarines or other, new technologies,” said Granholm.

Greater access to Arctic resources and shipping is one of few positive spinoffs as climate change undermines the hunting cultures of indigenous peoples and threatens wildlife from caribou to polar bears.

The Northwest Passage past Canada, for instance, cuts the distance between Europe and the Far East to 7,900 nautical miles from 12,600 via the Panama Canal. Similar savings can be made on a route north of Russia.

A U.N. deadline for coastal states to submit claims to offshore continental shelves passed on May 13 and in 2007 Russia planted a flag on the seabed in 13,980 feet of water under the Pole to back its claim.

Russia’s flag-planting stunt might also herald new technologies — the world record for drilling in water depth is 10,011 feet, held by Transocean Inc, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor.

Claims by Norway and Iceland do not extend so far north and Denmark, Canada and the United States were not bound by the deadline.

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