Soft security from below – the role of macro-regional actors and structures in the Baltic Sea Region
by Nina Tynkkynen
The environmental sector is one of the main soft security sectors in the Baltic Sea region. The Baltic Sea is among the most polluted seas in the world; while at the same time, its protection in (macro)regional cooperation is often referred to as a success story of international environmental politics. The environment of the Baltic Sea has been in the focus of public attention since the early 1970s. In 1974, the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea was agreed upon by all the coastal countries. This Convention was revolutionary, for it was the first multilateral agreement between members of two competing military alliances, the Warsaw Pact and NATO. A macroregional organisation, HELCOM, was formed to govern the Convention.
The Soviet Union, and later also the Russian Federation, highlighted that cooperation within the HELCOM framework is valuable, as it is not political and it is based on science. Yet, scholars who have studied this cooperation argue that the participation of coastal countries in the Helsinki Convention was first and foremost motivated by political interests. During the times of polarization of the Baltic Sea region, environmental cooperation served as a way for the countries to demonstrate their willingness to create a positive political atmosphere in Europe. To a certain extent, this interpretation applies also to the current situation. Macroregional organisations like HELCOM and the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) help to stabilise the political situation in the region and to support diplomatic relations from below. From the environmental perspective, this task seems to have on occasion been more important than achieving improvement in the actual state of the Baltic Sea environment.
Cooperation within the HELCOM framework has taken different forms at different times. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was mainly about building diplomatic relations and scientific cooperation. During the 1990s, practical, project-based cooperation was carried out under the HELCOM framework, including the modernisation of the water sector of the city of St Petersburg. Although this practical project cooperation has continued until recently, Russia’s attitude towards the Baltic Sea environmental cooperation has changed. Nowadays, Russia tends to emphasise its role as an equal partner, rather than a recipient of aid. During the 2000s, Russia became more active in HELCOM; it also hosted the HELCOM presidency in 2008-2010. This activity can be explained by Russia’s active attempts to revive its geopolitical status through strengthening its role and influence in various international organisations, including HELCOM. Russia has also stressed the importance of HELCOM and other regional soft security organisations to balance the political domination of the EU in the region. This links to Russia’s strategic aim to concentrate its energy exports to the Baltic Sea and to promote the topical NordStream 2 project and the politically acceptable transport of its energy sales to the European consumers.
In sum, the main role of macroregional actors like HELCOM and CBSS is to engage Russia in regional cooperation, as the EU seems quite powerless in this engagement and Russia is eager to work through these organisations and structures. Therefore, the task is not only to take care of practical soft security matters, but also to maintain day-to-day relations and enhance overall cooperativeness in the Baltic Sea region. In the long run, enhancing soft security from below serves also as a means to manage hard security issues.
Nina Tynkkynen is university lecturer in Baltic Sea Region Studies at the University of Turku. Her current research interests focus on the politics of environmental knowledge and the dynamics of international environmental politics in the context of Northern Europe in particular.