The Antarctic free-for-all

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maxim Krans) - Russia's 53rd Antarctic Expedition began in the small hours of November 6. The "Akademik Fyodorov" research vessel is sailing to the Antarctic in bad political weather that threatens to deteriorate into a geopolitical tornado.

On October 17 the Guardian, a British newspaper, cited Foreign Office sources as saying that the U.K. government might lodge a legal claim with the UN's commission on the limits of the continental shelf "to extend sovereign territory into new areas."

Argentina promptly replied to the challenge. Its Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said his country would also claim part of the "Antarctic pie," including the controversial territory around the Falkland Islands, which Argentina attempted to take from Britain by force in 1982.

The next to join the melee was Chile. A week after the article in the Guardian, the Chilean government announced it would reopen its mothballed Captain Arturo Prat naval base in the Antarctic next spring.

China announced that the "Snow Dragon," a third-generation icebreaker, would be dispatched to the Antarctic in mid-November to modernize the two Chinese stations and start building a third one.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, referring to information from the web site of the British Foreign Office, said that Russia was against the division of the Antarctic on the basis of unilateral territorial claims.

According to the October 19 statement by the U.K. Foreign Office, Britain "is considering submitting five claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) for the extension of the continental shelf" before May 2009. "U.K. jurisdiction in these areas, if internationally agreed, would help protect these areas from uncontrolled environmental damage," the statement said.

This is a telling statement, especially since it was published on the Foreign Office's site two days after the article in the Guardian.

The site also provides information about the so-called British Antarctic Territory, an area of more than 1.7 million square kilometers (666,000 square miles), to which London now intends to add huge shelf areas.

Britain made the first territorial claim to part of Antarctica in 1908, by Letters Patent. It has maintained a permanent presence in the British Antarctic Territory since 1943. The currency is pounds sterling, and the administration is led by Commissioner Robert Leigh Turner. So if you want to travel to the southern continent, request a visa at a British embassy.

At least a dozen countries laid claim to Antarctic areas before the Antarctic Treaty was adopted in 1959.

In 1938, Germany set up the New Schwaben Land base on an area of 600,000 square kilometers on the Atlantic shore of Queen Maud Land. It is rumored that the Nazis conducted nuclear research there, and that Hitler and some of his comrades took refuge there after World War II.

Some even claim that German engineers designed "flying saucers" there. But these myths cannot be confirmed or dispelled, because documents about New Schwaben Land were destroyed after the war.

The United States and Russia have so far not laid claim to territory in the Antarctic, although they proclaimed it a zone of their interests. But if current disputes continue, they will have to intervene. In fact, they have already started preparing for possible debates.

On October 31, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and submitted it to the Senate for final consideration, arguing that this would give the United States a free hand in the battle for the shelf.

This is what I mean by "bad weather" for 53rd Russian expedition, which went to the southern continent to reopen the Russkaya and Leningradskaya research stations, closed for lack of funds in the 1980s.

Vyacheslav Martyanov, head of the expedition, said the construction of "a new Russian outpost in the Antarctic" at the Progress station would be financed by the end of the year. The Russian government has also increased allocations for the Antarctic program by 15%, to 2.4 billion rubles ($97.9 million).

Artur Chilingarov, deputy speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, will find it difficult to keep away from the Antarctic. He always goes where there are problems, although he is often the one who creates them, as when he planted the Russian titanium flag into the seabed beneath the North Pole.

Chilingarov has announced his intention to spend the Christmas holiday in the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility, the point on the Antarctic continent most distant from the ocean.

I believe that another Russian traveler, Fyodor Konyukhov, has a more sensible idea. He plans to take part in the January yachting race around the southern continent. A much better plan than inciting a race of less innocent vessels.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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