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Neighbours on the northern islands: Conclusions of the Russian-Norwegian roundtable on the problems of Spitsbergen

The Spitsbergen archipelago (the Svalbard archipelago) for many centuries has been drawing attention of different countries, but due to the geographic position and the historical conditions Norway and Russia have always been involved, more than others, into different activities on the archipelago. However, today certain disagreements between the countries exist, which are expressed, in particular, in the statements made by representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry regarding breaking provisions of the Spitsbergen Treaty (the Svalbard Treaty) of 1920 by Norway. Can the archipelago be called today a territory of international cooperation and how to remove existing obstacles for a dialogue?

Today, on April 27, the Gorchakov Fund hosted online roundtable “Spitsbergen: The Past and the Future of International Cooperation”. Experts in international relations, history, economics and applied research from Russia and Norway participated in the event.

A recording of the event is available on the YouTube channel of the Gorchakov Fund in Russian and English.

In 1871, the Union of Sweden and Norway sent a note with a request of sovereignty over Spitsbergen to Russia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Belgium. That international correspondence is considered to be the first agreement on the status of Spitsbergen. Thor Bjørn Arlov, Senior Adviser to the Pro-Rector for Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim and Associate Professor of History at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), provided an overview of the issue of sovereignty over the archipelago from that point in history until the Treaty of 1920. 

“The issue of Spitsbergen's sovereignty has never been a problem since the territory did not have an economic value. Only when Norway got separated from Sweden in 1905, the issue of Spitsbergen turned into one of the priorities of the Norwegian foreign policy. When the coal mining began on the archipelago, the question of its sovereignty became more sensitive. Norway came forward with an initiative of signing an international agreement, which resulted in the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920”.

Dr. Alexander Vylegzhanin, Head of the International Law Department at MGIMO University, analyzed current problems associated with interpretation and application of the Spitsbergen Treaty.

“Positions of Norway’s NATO allies regarding the status of business operations within the framework of the Spitsbergen Treaty are not quite consistent and it is a fact, – mentioned the expert. – In order to resolve that problem, partnership between Norway and Russian within the framework of the Spitsbergen Treaty needs to be restored to the Soviet level of interaction between the USSR and Norway”.

Arild Moe, Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, identified main characteristics of the Norwegian policy regarding Spitsbergen over the past years:

“The main direction of the Norwegian foreign policy in regards to Spitsbergen is observance of compliance with the terms of the international treaty. The goal of Russia is to support its presence in order to be absolutely sure that negative trends of development towards militarization of the archipelago are absent. Norway fully shares and supports that goal”.

The expert mentioned that historically Norway and Russian had been marking their presence on the archipelago through coal mining. Today, priority areas of development and cooperation for Norway are tourism, education and scientific research. “Such activities are associated with larger territories of Spitsbergen, but they go against major principles of the Norwegian policy in regards to the archipelago – preservation and protection of the unique local environment”, added Arild Moe.

Among all kinds of activities in the area of Spitsbergen deep-sea fishing is the most developed one. Russian-Norwegian cooperation in executing control over that area cannot be called smooth, believes Vyacheslav Zilanov, member of the Scientific and Expert Council of the Marine Collegium under the Government of the Russian Federation. According to the speaker, the sovereignty of Norway in compliance with the Treaty of 1920 applies only to the land and the territorial waters. However, in 1977 Norway established a 200-mile fish conservation zone around the archipelago without taking into account all provisions of the international-legal system, after which tensions around Spitsbergen began.

“Monitoring of fish resources and fishery operations should be executed according to uniform rules. Cooperation between Russia and Norway in that area can reduce tensions in the region, – said Vyacheslav Zilanov. – Spitsbergen and the nearby Medvezhyi Island are sea gates to Russia and the story of World War II has proved that. Russia and Norway are more than others interested in peaceful cooperation here with consideration of the present-day developments”.

Yury Ugryumov, Deputy Director of the State Research Centre “Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute”, Head of the Russian Scientific Arctic Expedition to the Spitsbergen archipelago, told about the history of Russian research on the archipelago. According to the speaker, presently, the Russian research center on the archipelago is conducting studies in numerous areas: land exploration, marine and coastal studies, cryosphere research, monitoring of environmental pollution and others. The Russian expedition cooperates with Norwegian think tanks, including the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS).

“Norwegian authorities pay much attention to development of scientific research and support international cooperation on the archipelago. However, there is a number of factors, which interfere with conducting Russian scientific studies. For example, a prohibition by Norway to use Russian helicopters Mi-8 for the purposes of research. Absence of a license for such activities prevents us from working in remote regions of the archipelago”, emphasized Yury Ugryumov.

According to the researcher, the prohibition to use Russian helicopters Mi-8 for scientific goals is political. Scientists have been raising that issue for over a decade; however, it has not been possible to resolve it by efforts of the academic community. “We are deprived of opportunities to develop our research”, added Yury Ugryumov.

“The Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920 does not cover issues of scientific cooperation, – mentioned Dr. Ole Arve Misund, Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, during his presentation. – Perhaps, a hundred years ago there was no need for that since majority of sciences were in the early stage of development. Today, it is important for us to expand our scientific cooperation under conditions of climate change, which is our common problem”.

During the roundtable, Dr. Ole Arve Misund made an offer to Yury Ugryumov to discuss possibilities of joint research between the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Russian Scientific Center on Spitsbergen.

“Despite difficult relations between Russia and the West today, interests of Russia and the US coincide 100 per cent regarding to the legal status of the Spitsbergen archipelago. I do not exclude a possibility of creating a coalition between the two countries on that issue”, added Pavel Gudev, Senior Research Fellow at the Sector for US Foreign and Domestic Policy on IMEMO RAS.

Geir Ulfstein, Professor of Public and International Law at University of Oslo, answered a question from the audience during the live discussion whether a probability of establishing NATO military bases on Spitsbergen in the future should be considered.

“It is important to respect the provisions of the Spitsbergen Treaty and remember that Article 9 of that treaty says that no military actions and military bases can be established on the territory of Spitsbergen. Norway does not have any plans regarding establishing such objects and there cannot be any”, explained the expert.