Diplomacy News

Alaskan Sovereignty Issues: Wrangles Over Wrangel

Sovereignty issues have recently been appearing in Alaskan newspapers. On February 22, the Alaska Dispatch noted that former U.S. senate candidate Joe Miller was lambasting Barak Obama for relinquishing control of several sizable “oil-rich” Alaskan islands, ostensibly because of the Obama administration’s hostility to the petroleum industry. The accusation immediately began to ricochet around the right-wing blogosphere. Gateway Pundit’s headline ran, “Report: Obama Administration Is Giving Away 7 Strategic Islands to Russia.” On many blogs, hyperbole ran wild. One claimed that “the presidents and our elite have given away part of the US,” which it adduced as proof that the United States is “now a dictatorship”; another argued that this maneuver represented nothing less than “the destruction of a nation.”

On some of the larger conservative sites, however, cooler heads urged caution.  Although the comments on Free Republic included such opinion as “TREASON,” and “Is it to appease the Russians or to spite Sarah Palin?,” commentator JSDude 1 provided much needed context, informing readers that the islands in question have never been claimed by the United States and in fact have long been occupied by Russia. Another voice of moderation weighed in with the observation that the islands “don’t exactly look strategic to me unless strategic means cold.”

The lands in question are Wrangel Islands and parts of the DeLong Archipelago, located to the north of Siberia. Every few years someone proclaims that these islands rightfully belong to the United States, but such claims rest on a thin foundation, to say the least. Admittedly, in 1881 an American naval commander planted a U.S. flag, but that is about it. The Russian government officially extended sovereignty over the island in 1911, although it was challenged by a Canadian expedition in 1921. Since 1926, however, Wrangel has been under Soviet and then Russian rule. The United States recognizes Russian control, although a formal treaty specifying as much has never been ratified.  The extreme nationalist group State Department Watch thus claims that the US has a legitimate claim to Wrangel and their other islands, and should thus challenge Russian sovereignty.

Wrangel Island is well known in paleontological circles as the last redoubt of the wooly mammoth. Whereas mammoths went extinct elsewhere at the end of the Pleistocene roughly 10,000 years ago, they survived on Wrangel until about 1,700 BCE. The fact that wooly mammoths held out until the bleak island was first reached by humans is considered by some to be prime evidence that Pleistocene megafauna died out because of human hunting rather than climatic change (more on this when GeoCurrents turns to Siberia next month).

Alaska’s other recent sovereignty issue is domestic, pitting the state against the federal government over the jurisdiction of waterways in Yukon-Charlie National Preserve (a national preserve is administered by the National Park Service, but has a lesser degree protection than an actual national park). The dispute was brought to a head when federal authorities ordered a man to quit hunting moose in the park from the seat of his hovercraft. Although hunting is allowed in the preserve, hovercrafts are not. Alaska has challenged the prohibition, and the case is now going to court.


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Growing Iranian-Azerbaijani Tensions and Baku’s Diplomatic Maneuvers

Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have been intensifying in recent days. On February 23, hackers from groups called “Iranian Cyber Army” and “Cocaine Warriors from Persia” attacked several Azerbaijani website, including that of the national airline, AZAL. Two days previously, Azerbaijani security forces reported the arrest of an armed gang with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which was supposedly stockpiling weapons in preparation for an attack on foreigners in Baku. Azerbaijan has also claimed that Iranian military helicopters have violated its airspace. Iran, for its part, has accused Azerbaijan of sheltering Israeli Mossad agents seeking to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. Both sides have accused the other of funneling narcotics into their national territories. Azerbaijan recently arrested an Iranian journalist on drug charges, which Iran claims were fabricated. Iranian sources, meanwhile, claim that Azerbaijan has sent troops to Afghanistan for the express purpose of protecting the country’s opium crop, which it claims is a major “source of income for the occupiers.”

The tension between the two countries is linked to Azerbaijan’s relatively close and reportedly tightening relations with Israel, as well as to the fact that up to 20 millions Iranians are ethnic Azeris, some of whom have divided loyalties.  According to report by NPR, Azerbaijani partisans in the Iranian city of Tabriz recently disrupted a soccer game by unfurling flags of Azerbaijan; the video of the incident was evidently “a big hit in Baku.” The same article notes that, “Israel buys 30 percent of its oil from Azerbaijan, and recently awarded a lucrative gas-drilling contract off its Mediterranean coast to an Azerbaijani firm.”

While Azerbaijan’s relations with Iran have deteriorated, its government has been trying to shore up connections with other states. Last week, officials from Azerbaijan met with Austrian officials to discuss “bilateral trade and economic relations and the Azerbaijani entry into the World Trade Organization.” After similar meetings with Belarus, the two countries pledged to support “the expansion of economic cooperation, the development of bilateral relations, the support for economic relations between the countries” and much more. An Azerbaijani delegation even visited the U.S. state of Mississippi in order to enhance trade ties and further develop bilateral relations. Azerbaijani officials are less favorably disposed to California at the moment, due to a pending Californian assembly bill that would recognize, “the deportation of more than 350,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan” in 1988. Azerbaijan claims that this legislative maneuver is “ignorant and irresponsible,” since outrages were committed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia during this period.





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The South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea?

As the struggle for the Spratly Islands heats up, basic place names are coming into play. In the Philippines, news outlets and various official agencies now insist on calling the body of water in which the islands are located the “West Philippine Sea” rather than the “South China Sea,” as the latter term might seemingly grant China priority in this contested area. In China, however, the more neutral term “South Sea” (Nánhǎi) is generally used, while Vietnam favors “East Sea” (Biển Đông).

The “South China Sea” thus joins the Sea of Japan—which the Koreans call the East Sea—and the Persian Gulf—which the Arabs call the Arabian Gulf—in the list of political contested maritime place names. Atlas publishers, beware.


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Scotland Vs. the Shetland and Orkney Islands

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has gained enough power to have arranged for a vote on Scottish independence in 2014. But although the party has made major gains in recent years in many parts of Scotland, it has done poorly in others. Voters in the northern islands have generally rejected the SNP. A local political leader, the Earl of Caithness, recently called for a “clause [to be] added to Westminster legislation to allow Shetland and Orkney to remain part of the UK if voters [there] reject Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.”

As the electoral map posted here shows, support for the SNP is strong in the oil-rich northeast and in the Scottish-Gaelic-speaking Outer Hebrides in the northwest. Support reaches notably high level in and around the city of Fraserburgh in the northeast, Europe’s largest shellfish port.

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