- One hundred and thirty-two years after selling the vast
and mineral- rich land of Alaska to the United States for $7.2m - a mere
two cents an acre - in one of history's least lucrative land deals, Russia
wants some of it back.
- To the annoyance of the Alaskans, Moscow has been pressing
the US government to part with 40,000 square miles of the seas and fishing
grounds that separate East from West along the International Dateline.
- The issue is part of a broader territorial issue in the
far north that centres on a barren island well inside the Arctic Circle,
just below the point at which the polar ice never melts. Aptly, this patch
of 1,700 square miles is known by the Alaskans as Wrangel Island.
- The island, which is usually frozen and populated by
polar bears, is one of eight rocks and islands in the Arctic Ocean and
Bering Sea which, with their large and rich seabeds, ended up in Russian
territory under an agreement struck between what was the Soviet Union and
the United States in 1990.
- Notwithstanding its own vast and rich 548,400 square
miles of land - in which there is an average of less than one person per
square mile - Alaska was infuriated by the deal, not least because state
representatives believe there may be oil and other important natural resources
in the region.
- The state's MPs contend that Alaska was denied the right
to participate in the negotiations with the Soviet Union by the US government.
The talks were held in secret. Alaska is also pressing for the agreement
to be declared null and void, as the Soviet Union collapsed before it could
be ratified by Moscow. Despite that, Russia and the US have since agreed
to abide by the deal.
- State rights are a particularly sensitive issue in Alaska,
which until 1959 was denominated as a territory under an unelected governor
chosen by the US president. Equally, Alaska - which was under Russian control
for 126 years, after its trappers poured across the Bering Straits in search
of sea otters and fur seals - has long been jealously eyed by Moscow, which
has yet to forget how it gave the place away for a song in the mid-19th
- The issue of the so-called 1990 US-USSR Maritime Boundary
Agreement has been simmering away for several years, but disagreements
took an abrupt step forward a week ago when Alaska's governor, Tony Knowles,
signed a resolution from both houses of the state legislature, strongly
urging the US government to renegotiate it.
- Although non-binding legally, the resolution heightens
the pressure on the US federal government. The state is threatening to
follow it up with a series of hearings on the issue. It argues that if
it loses its 40,000 square miles of water to the Russians, then with it
will go a potential annual catch of some 300 million pounds of fish, with
nothing in return.
- Wrangel is the jewel in the crown of the disputed territories.
Alaska has long seen it as its own partly because it had a fur-trapping
company on the island until 1924, when the Soviet Union occupied it. Quite
apart from its possible mineral riches, it is rich in history: several
years ago Russian scientists found the remains of 23 dwarf woolly mammoths
on Wrangel, which they believed survived the Ice Age by 6,000 years, before
finally being eradicated by early man. __________________________________________