How Gorbachev shaped future Arctic policy 25 years ago

On Oct. 1, 1987, the president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, made a speech in Murmansk outlining the Soviet Union's Arctic foreign policy. It was delivered within a context of glasnost and perestroika, and book-ended by similar speeches on the Asia Pacific region in 1986, and the Mediterranean in 1988.

But, this speech had lasting significance and impact. Frequently referred to as the Murmansk Initiative, Gorbachev outlined six concrete goals and activities to promote the region as a "zone of peace":

  1. Establish a nuclear-free zone in Northern Europe.
  2. Restrict military activity and scale down naval and air force activities in the Baltic, Northern, Norwegian and Greenland Seas, and promote confidence-building measures in those areas.
  3. Cooperation on resource development, including technology transfer.
  4. Organization of an international conference on Arctic scientific research coordination, leading perhaps to an Arctic Research Council.
  5. Cooperation in environmental protection and management.
  6. Opening of the Northern Sea Route.

The goals around disarmament -- surely the ones of greatest concern to Gorbachev at the time and the impetus for the speech -- were met with considerable skepticism. But the general tone of the speech, and the overture for greater cooperation, proved irresistible.

The opening provided was quickly seized upon and circumpolar relations began in earnest, with a long list of achievements coming in the years following the speech.

The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), a direct response to point No. 4, was founded in 1990, allowing for much greater facilitation and support of Arctic research. It was complemented by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA) that same year.

The Northern Forum and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference were finally able to hold meetings that included their Russian brethren. Perhaps most significantly, Finland and Canada spearheaded the establishment of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in 1991, which aimed to address the many environmental challenges facing the Arctic region, not the least from Soviet industrialization policies. The AEPS led directly to the establishment of the Arctic Council some five years later, in 1996.

All in all, the Murmansk Initiative accomplished most of what it set out to do, and laid the foundation for the "zone of peace" that to a great extent we can enjoy today.


There's no doubt that the collapse of the Soviet Union itself provided most of the opportunity for these initiatives, and the early years of circumpolar cooperation were aimed, strategically, at creating space for discussion and collaboration with a vulnerable Russia in a tumultuous time. But the speech provided inspiration for some tangible achievements, and those have provided the foundation for the Arctic region as it stands today.

Inasmuch as it is possible to assign a date marking the beginning of the current era of circumpolar cooperation, Oct. 1, 1987, is it.

So lift up your glass -- preferably one filled with ice wine or vodka -- and toast 25 years of inspiring, innovative region-building.

The Arctic is a place where cooperation is sought, indigenous peoples are respected, development is increasingly sustainable, and scientific research is supported and used in decision-making processes. It is a model of success. Although the next 25 years will surely test the region's ability to manage disputes and protect the environmental and cultural integrity of the Arctic, a solid foundation to pursue common goals and interests in a responsible manner has been established, and it all began with Gorbachev's speech. It is an occasion that deserves to be celebrated.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.