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Independence Day: Greenland Takes a Step Towards Autonomy

More independence, fewer subsidies: The residents of Greenland voted on Tuesday for more distance from Denmark, its former colonial ruler. They're hoping that profits from oil and minerals will one day smooth the path to full independence.

On Tuesday night, fireworks burst over Greenland's capital city of Nuuk, as election results showed that an overwhelming majority of residents of the isolated island voted for increased independence from its former colonial ruler, Denmark. The final result was no surprise -- polls projected correctly that 75 percent would vote in favor of the proposal -- but residents were no less happy to celebrate the historic achievement.

Prime Minister Hans Enoksen has said that the vote is a stepping stone on the way to full autonomy that would end over three centuries without sovereignty and give Greenland's Inuit population a presence on the world stage for the first time.

Denmark made the island a colony in 1776. And though it was granted home rule in 1979, Greenland's head of state remains Denmark's Queen Margrethe II.

Tuesday's vote cleared the way for Greenland to take control over its own justice and police affairs starting next June. The population will also be granted international legal status as an independent people, and the local Inuit dialect will become the island's official language. As part of the new home-rule agreement, Copenhagen will also consult Nuuk when making foreign affairs and security decisions concerning the island.

Greenland will continue to earn subsidies from Denmark, amounting to around 3.2 billion Danish crowns ($540 million) per year -- over half of Greenland's annual budget. But, at the center of the new arrangement between Denmark and Greenland is a plan to eventually ween the island off of those subsidies.

Islanders are hoping that global warming will free up access to oil and mineral deposits currently believed to be buried under coastal or inland ice. Copenhagen and Nuuk have agreed to split profits earned from those resources. For every two Danish crowns that Greenland earns, Copenhagen will reduce its subsidies by one crown.

Were Greenland to one day indeed earn its independence, it would be the world's least densely populated country, with a territory three times the size of France and a population of only 57,000.

A number of hurdles stand in the way of the goal of full autonomy. Despite hopes for the future, fishing is currently the only robust sector of the economy; unemployment is high; infrastructure is poor; and the school system is weak. Furthermore, the local political parties have been accused of widespread corruption and cronyism.

Social problems also plague life on the island. Alcoholism is widespread and suicide is unnervingly common. Greenland's government has recently asked employees of large public companies, including taxi and postal services, to report customers that seem suicidal.

Other countries have their own interest in Greenland's status, and are sure to exert sway. Not least among them is the United States: America has had a military base on the northernmost part of the island since the 1950s. This US presence has not always been welcomed with open arms by the islanders. Inuit have had to be relocated for the American base, and there are still concerns over an undetonated hydrogen bomb that went missing in the coastal waters.

Most probably, it's no longer an option to buy Greenland outright, as America tried to do shortly after World War II. In any case, the going rate would be much higher than the $100 million offered the Danish government 60 years ago.

csa -- with wire reports

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