Who owns the Bering Strait? - 4 September, 2002

Russian-American relations seem to be marred by some problems again. It is one problem, to be more precise. Within four nearest months, Russia is going to develop a new variant of an agreement on a Russia-USA border at the Bering and Chuckchee Seas.

In 1990, then-Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State James Baker concluded an agreement according to which the USSR gave a share of waters at the Bering Strait and the Chuckchee Sea to the USA. As a result, a historically formed water boundary between Russia and the USA determined in 1867, after Alaska was sold, was changed then.

The change, however, produced no sensation in the press in 1990. Publications about the Baker-Shevardnadze agreement were considered as a new step forward in the Russia-America friendship. Little importance was attached then to the fact that the agreement prohibited Russian fishermen to enter a 200-mile zone in the Bering Sea. Chairman of the Federation Council committee for affairs of the north, Alexander Nazarov says, Russia’s annual losses make up $200 million, because America fails to carry out the commitments on compensation of fish catch at the rate of 1,5 million tons.

It was rather unusual but in 1990 the US Senate immediately approved the agreement concluded by Shevardnadze and Baker, which is so much atypical of American senators when relations between the two countries are concerned (revocation of the Jackson-Venik amendment can serve an example here). Russian parliamentarians understood perfectly well that the agreement infringed upon Russia’s interests, that is why the document is still not ratified by the Russian parliament.

In Nazarov’s words, a group of Russian senators will soon leave for the USA to discuss a new variant of the agreement with American colleagues. Nazarov says: “The agreement really exists,  however, it doesn’t function de facto.” He also says, it is possible to appeal to court to declare Eduard Shevardnadze’s signature on the 1990 agreement void. “We consider it as a possible variant if we reach no consensus with the USA concerning the new variant of the agreement.”

Chairman of the Federation Council Committee for international affairs Mikhail Markelov hopes that the parties will come to a reasonable solution. “Relations with America have become really very constructive within  the past 1,5 years. Several effective mechanisms for strategic stability, anti-dumping legislation and other important issues have been developed within this period.”

Why is the Baker –Shevardnadze agreement of 1990 so urgent now? Americans are unlikely to be very happy about revision of the agreement, as they have lots of international problems besides it. Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent newspaper) reports, “blaming former Foreign Minister of the USSR Eduard Shevardnadze and the USA of dishonest annexation of a portion of the Russian seas can be interpreted as an asymmetrical response to attempts of the Georgian president (Eduard Shevardnadze) to turn Moscow into a geopolitical enemy with a strong support from Washington.” So, politics is rather intricate: the Pankisi Gorge problem is gradually developing into a problem of water boundary division between Russia and the USA.

So, it is hard to predict to what extent the initiative of Russian senators will prove effective. As of now, it has already won support on the Kremlin and Russia’s Foreign Ministry. On the one hand, Russia’s initiative doesn’t seem to be very much promising, as Russia has little influence to make the USA revise the agreement. On the other hand, there are some ways to influence the US’s decision. Probably, the analogy isn’t good enough, but let’s recollect the situation when the US introduced unfavorable steel tariffs, and Russia in its turn, stopped import of American poultry.  As a result, a compromise was reached between the parties. It is not ruled out that a compromise is possible in this case as well. However, it will be more difficult this time.

Vasily Bubnov

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Author`s name Michael Simpson