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Of Franklin, the Northwest Passage, Scotland, and Crimea

Its been a busy week for students of Arctic identity, what with all the noise surrounding Canada’s discovery of the remains of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships that went down in 1845 when seeking the Northwest Passage. Klaus Dodds has posted an insightful commentary on the political implications of the discovery (and the attention being give to it by the media and the Canadian government) on the Royal Holloway Geopolitics & Security blog. See also Adriana Craciun‘s excellent editorial in the Ottawa Citizen.

Joël Plenlouffe and I have added our thoughts on the matter in a 10-minute segment on the Voice of Russia’s UK service, ‘Franklin ship discovery throws a spotlight on Arctic ambitions‘. Joël and I agree that the discovery of the ship — or, for that matter, the record of Franklin’s journey — has no legal significance. The event of the discovery is, however, significant, because news media and the political elites speaking to them have chosen to make it so.

All this reminds me of the similar buzz surrounding various organizations’ bids to become permanent observers to the Arctic Council. These efforts similarly had little practical significance except that they were significant because everyone involved decided to declare them significant. By endowing these events with symbolic properties, media and policy elites successfully shape discourse (and, thereby, the practice of state and non-state actors). I make this argument (with reference to the Arctic Council, not Franklin) in a paper currently under review, co-authored with Johanne Bruun and Ingrid Medby.

Returning to the Voice of Russia, I was curious (and a bit wary) about how the interview would be edited since at a few points I speculated about what Canada’s enthusiasm for exerting its ‘sovereignty’ in the Northwest Passage might mean for Russia, given its interest in the Northern Sea Route (a/k/a the Northeast Passage). In bringing this up, I was pointing to some shared interests between Canada and Russia that, in fact, neither country’s government is terribly keen to discuss, since it interferes with their parallel, but also competing, nationalist narratives. However, my comments on the parallels between Canada and Russia were reproduced at length; I can only guess that any story that highlights the importance of northern ‘openings’ is considered a good thing from the Russian perspective, especially if it’s a northern story that is also emotive to British audiences.

Actually, a look around the Voice of Russia UK website reveals another instance in which the VoR draws links between political events and aspirations in Russia and those in the West. In Britain we’re all focusing on Scotland’s independence referendum to be held this coming Thursday, but the Voice of Russia reminds us that yesterday (Sunday 14 September) the people of Crimea voted to elect their first representatives to the Russian Duma. In an article headlined ‘West has “no other option” but to recognise Crimea if Scots go independent’ the Voice of Russia, quoting Crimean acting regional head Sergei Aksynov, draws a parallel between the two moves for self determination. I’m not sure what impact, if any, the drawing of this connection might have on an undecided Scottish voter, but it’s an interesting parallel that points to the power — and, arguably, the slipperiness — of political programmes based on calls for self determination.

Phil S


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