Muscles are flexed in the Arctic — but they are not Norwegian

By Arne O. Holm, High North News - October 18, 2017
Tero Vauraste is the managing director of Arctia, and he is also chairperson of the Arctic Economic Council. (Arne O. Holm / High North News)
Tero Vauraste is the managing director of Arctia, and he is also chairperson of the Arctic Economic Council. (Arne O. Holm / High North News)

“The Arctic holds the highest suicide rate in the world,” Tero Vauraste said. “We have to do something about that.”

Most attendees were prepared for a lecture in financial accounting and about politicians hampering business growth in the High North.

I do not know how many people there were who truly noticed Vauraste’s statement, provided in between warnings of protectionism and a free-trade defense.

Vauraste is Finnish and a giant character in Arctic finance industry. He took the lectern in Harpa, Iceland’s impressive concert building in Reykjavik. The Arctic Circle Assembly, a large annual Icelandic High North conference, provided the setting for his lecture.

More of that later.

A couple of thousand people from all over the world pour in, from the north to the south.

The biggest industrial corporations, prime ministers, politicians, scientists, professors and indigenous people – as well as everyone else with an interest in the High North – attend.

Some came from Norway, too.

More of that later.

The program alone covered some 60 pages.

There were also Norwegian contributions

But more of that later.

Tero Vauraste’s contribution was not the only one in Iceland that was concerned with mental challenges and social problems in the north, in particular among the indigenous people.

What was remarkable was that the message was brought out with emphasis by the Director of Arctia, a state-owned Finnish shipping company that has specialized in icebreakers. A shipowner and a businessman who worries about people’s mental challenges in the High North is something quite remarkable.

Icebreakers and suicide

The Managing Director of Arctia wants to use his icebreakers along the Northern Sea Route when their home ports in the Baltic Sea is ice-free and the boats would otherwise not be in operation. Together with others he is looking to cut freight costs between Europe, Russia and Asia through sailing north through ice instead of south towards pirates.

Tero Vauraste is not only Finnish, and a managing director in a state-owned company. He is also chairperson of the Arctic Economic Council, a union of companies operating in the Arctic. He sees business opportunities in the High North, but he also speaks of social challenges.

Thus, he demonstrates that the human dimension, people as the most important resource, is increasingly present also when business and politics are on the table.

Though we should not be led on. “Business as usual” still characterizes the toughest actors in the north, this year strongly marked through a blend of Russian, Chinese and Finnish politics and business.

These three countries, on their own as well as in unison, take an increasingly stronger industrial grip of the High North.

Exceptional initiative

Russia is investing heavily in its Yamal production, in cooperation among others with Chinese industry. The dimensions are so huge that one can barely fathom, even for those of us who come from a country where the state’s assets are allocated in one of the world’s largest future pension funds.

In addition, the Russians invest heavily in infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route. New ports pop up like fungi following a rainy harvest day.

On the Finnish side, there are plans of a railway line between Kirkenes and Rovaniemi, from where a further line will continue south — towards China. The railway is planned in cooperation with both Russia and China.

China’s visions for trade in the north are equally gigantic. The Chinese economy is increasingly transitioning from being a raw material supplier and purchaser to becoming more of a processing economy. Electronic cars. Mobile phones. Everything you can think of shall reach a Russian and a European market.

In this way these three economies blend almost seamlessly into one another and disrupts both the Arctic and the global power balance. China is the world’s second largest economy and keeps growing. Russia is fighting for a top 10-position. Finland is, for obvious reasons, further behind on that list, however, she plays fiercely with the big ones anyway.

At the conference on Iceland, the three countries literally bombard us with their ambitions for the High North. The graphs showing their investments and growth opportunities are as steep as a tower.

Finland does not settle for colourful images presented on stage. The state-owned company Arctia has willingly taken the costs of sailing one of its icebreakers, the ‘MSV Nordica’, from Finland to Reykjavik. A banner rolled out along the port side of the vessel tells us that the ship holds the world record for both the earliest and the latest voyage through the Northwest Passage.

Few of us, if any, know that world records about sailing times in our ocean areas are recorded.

There were Norwegians too

Some may wonder where the Arctic nation of USA would fit into this image?

The answer is that no one knows. Or, to quote Michael T. Corgan of Boston University when on stage: “That depends on the latest tweet at any given time.”

President Donald Trump in one moment promises to build six new icebreakers, before he changes his mind and says none, for then again to claim there will be many, and then again perhaps six. Tweets about what he wants with the rest of the development of the Arctic remain to be seen.

Did I mention that there were Norwegians at the conference too? I believe I did. And those who were there did their best.

However, the official Norway was missing on the main stage for the fifth consecutive year.

On a way out from a meeting on Sunday morning, I happened to find a copy of the Norwegian government’s recent High North strategy.

I left it there.

It could be that another person among the 2,000 attendees in Iceland was wondering if Norway has any overall plans for the High North.

Translated into English by Elisabeth Bergquist.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Now, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)