Nyet for NATO Parliamentary Assembly? Seminar participants, Russians question Norway’s Svalbard policies

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Heat is much on the minds of everyone concerned, whether it’s people in the room questioning Norway’s hypocrisy about local coal mining or others outside it claiming  Norway is provoking an international conflict.

A two-day meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Longyearbyen that began Tuesday at The University Centre in Svalbard is focusing heavily on the effects climate change will have in a wide variety of policy areas worldwide. But a trio of opening speakers who emphasized the drastic changes already occurring in Svalbard and research efforts here linked to it failed to impress one delegate based on more personal observations.

“I was walking around this morning in Svalbard and what was astonishing to me I see only or mostly examples of old economy,” said Raymond Knops, a member of the assembly from The Netherlands. “Coal mining, no solar panels. So what’s your message to us? Should we change our attitude or is Svalbard supposed to be an example of what needs to happen? I think your story and message would be much more power if it was happening here.”

Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment Vidar Helgesen, who gave the seminar’s keynote address, noted Norway’s only coal mining takes place in Svalbard and it is not a significant contributor to the climate change affecting the Arctic.

But he noted policymakers are engaged in discussions about long-term shifts in local energy sources and is dedicating funds – including a grant that receives funding from a visitor tax – toward environmentally responsible research.

Helgesen, in addition to noting various environmental and societal impacts of climate change now and in the future, said in his speech that security is an increasing issue of concern.

“Terrorist groups are already using control of natural resources as a weapon of war,” he said.

The meeting itself is also a hot topic as Russia claims the gathering is deliberately provocative and a violation of the Svalbard Treaty. The treaty prohibits military facilities and using the archipelago for war-like purposes.

“We strongly believe that there are no problems in the Arctic region that require NATO participation to solve, let alone militarily,” a statement by Russia’s Foreign Ministry declares.

But Norwegian officials and policy experts disagreed, noting the assembly has meant twice in Longyearbyen before without protest.

“It is highly surprising that the Russian Foreign Ministry uses such strong language about a seminar in Longyearbyen, calling it a provocation,” said Per Arne Totland, a Norwegian writer and consultant with extesive experience in issues involving Svalbard, in an interview with The Independent Barents Observer. “The seminar participants are members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly – in other words, politicians, not even military personnel.”

Totland told Svalbardposten he believes Norway can take far more aggressive action if it wants to be provocative.

“If you really want to turn around Article 9 of the treaty, you would like to say that it obliges Norway to establish an ability to prevent others from exploiting Svalbard ‘for military purposes,'” he said.

The dispute is part of an escalation in tensions between Russia and Norway about Arctic matters, with Svalbard serving as the stage for several incidents. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmity Rogozin visited Svalbard in the spring of 2015 – despite being banned in mainland Norway due to sanctions – sending a series of taunting social media messages afterward.

Norway responded by imposing tough manifest restrictions on incoming flights, which severely thwarted Russia’s effort to provide an ice camp base for North Pole expeditions in 2016. The camp further provoked Norwegian officials by having Chechen troops who trained there make a stopover at Svalbard Airport instead of taking a direct flight back to Russia.

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