Russia is tossing a stink bomb into this weekend’s planned celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Svalbard Treaty by demanding a meeting with Norway’s leaders regarding a multitude of long-running accusations of discrimination against Russia – including economic and scientific activity, fishing right, and deportation of citizens – in violation of the treaty’s equal-access provisions.
Which isn’t to say the accusations are frivolous. Some of them – which also are being expressed by other foreign entities such as the European Union, which is confronting Norway in a landmark legal battle over fishing rights – date back decades in some cases. Furthermore, some of the issues are also rapidly gaining in importance due to immense and rapid changes in Svalbard’s economic base, societal makeup, and opportunities such as commercial shipping and resource extraction in the surrounding areas.
But the timing is certainly meant to draw attention to the dispute during a week when Svalbard’s unique governing document is receiving celebratory global attention.
A letter sent this week (original / English via Google Translate) by Russian’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, deliberately timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the treaty of Feb. 9, opens with the flowery language expected to dominate ceremonies and statements this weekend.
“Its signing laid the foundations for the cooperation of interested states for the development and use of the vast territory of the archipelago,” the letter declares. “The traditions of peaceful coexistence and good neighborliness were not interrupted even during the years of the Cold War and are preserved in general to this day.”
But the five-paragraph letter takes a sharp turn and minces no words beginning in the third paragraph.
“We are particularly concerned about the restrictions imposed on the use of Russian helicopters, the deportation procedure from Spitsbergen directed exclusively against our citizens, the illegality of the establishment of the so-called ‘fish protection zone’ by Norway, the artificial expansion of nature protection zones to limit economic activity in the archipelago and a number of other problems,” the letter states.
The letter notes Russia is the only country besides Norway that has maintained a strong and permanent presence in Svalbard for many decades and Russia “does not intend to curtail its presence.”
“On the contrary, there are long-term plans for its strengthening, diversification and modernization,” the letter states.
An “invitation” for “bilateral consultations” to “remove restrictions” on Russia’s activities closes out the letter, signing off with “we expect a positive response from the Norwegian side.”
Audun Halvorsen, a spokesperson for Norway’s foreign affairs ministry, told High North News the letter was received on Monday, but did not specifically address the request for a meeting with Russian counterparts.
“The views appearing in the letter are regularly brought up by the Russian side and are well known to Norwegian authorities,” he said. “All activities on Svalbard are to take place within the framework of Norwegian laws and regulations.”
Among the many complaints Russia (and sometimes others) have raised:
• The fisheries protection zone around Svalbard, established by Norway in 1977, which has been contested by many nations although they have generally adhered to its terms. But Russia has spent decades contesting its marine continental shelf boundaries with Norway and, in a related dispute, is aligned with the EU regarding access to sea bottom resource of the continental shelf. While legal challenges by the EU over those resources that so far have been resolved in Norway’s favor focus on snow crabs, the battle is seen as a proxy for far more lucrative resources such as oil that are under the same governance.
• Norway granting itself favorable and questionably legal access to resources, including oil exploration just outside Svalbard’s boundaries that other entities such as Greenpeace also contend is illegal. As with the EU dispute, Norwegian courts have to date ruled in Norway’s favor.
• Helicopter access by Russia for construction, scouting and other activities in the archipelago. Norway has found Russia in violation of rules regarding permitting and prohibiting flightseeing, and assert the restrictions are necessary for environmental protection.
• Discrimination in travel access and deportation of Russian citizens, resulting from a change by Norway in 2015 to allow the banning of Russians blacklisted by the EU. A letter sent by Russia at the time makes similar claims to the one sent this week, declaring “the actions of the Norwegian side do not meet the spirit of the international cooperation on Svalbard on the basis of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. We resolutely protest against this unfriendly step and demand an immediate review of the restrictions introduced.”