Russia vs. Norway

Russia accuses Norway breaking the Svalbard Treaty

Russia Norway Svalbard

Image: Lise Åserud / NTB Scanpix
Svalbard Airport in Longyearbyen.

Johan Falnes
NTB / Trans. Andy Meyer

Russia says Norway has transgressed the Svalbard Treaty by limiting Russian activity. Norway rejects the accusation outright.

“In recent years, Oslo has in fact broken the terms of the Svalbard Treaty,” said Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a press briefing in Moscow on Feb. 20.

“We cannot accept this offense. As we have said repeatedly, this is not about discussing sovereignty over Svalbard but about finding solutions to specific challenges that Russian operators are experiencing in the archipelago,” she continued.

Russia’s position is that Norway’s activities in Svalbard result in limitations to Russian operations nearby.

“Unfortunately, the proposal from the Russian side to hold bilateral consultations in order to discuss problematic questions tied to Russian economic and scientific activity in the archipelago has not been met with understanding,” said Zakharova.

Must be treated equally

Norwegian defense minister Frank Bakke-Jensen (H) rejects the criticism.

“No, that’s not correct. The Svalbard Treaty makes clear that Svalbard is Norwegian territory. At the same time, it is true that all signatories to the treaty must be treated equally. That is something we do to the highest degree,” Bakke-Jansen told NRK.

Likewise, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejects Russia’s accusation.

“Norway carries out a consistent and predictable policy that is in full compliance with the Svalbard Treaty,” said the ministry’s press contact, Siri Svendsen, by email.

A letter from Sergei Lavrov

In a letter sent earlier in February, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, expressed dissatisfaction with Norway’s behavior in Svalbard. He refers to the fact that Norway has set restrictions on Russian helicopters in Svalbard. In addition, he points to the fishery protection zone and other protected areas around the islands where there is limited access to conduct business activities. The Russian foreign minister is also displeased with the practice of expelling offenders, which, according to him, only affects Russian citizens.

“The points of view that come through in the letter have been routinely brought up by the Russians and are well known to Norwegian authorities. What is new here is that the Russians have made their positions public,” Svendsen said.

Norway’s response

Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (H) answered Lavrov’s letter Feb. 12.

“Russian companies have the same opportunities as others to establish economic enterprises in Svalbard. Such enterprises must, of course, occur within the framework of Norwegian laws and regulations,” she wrote. “The limitations that we have imposed apply equally to all Norwegians and foreigners.”

Eriksen Søreide sees no basis for Norwegian-Russian consultations about Svalbard. Norway does not engage in such consultations with any other nation either, she pointed out.

100-year anniversary

It is 100 years since Norway signed the Svalbard Treaty. The treaty established Norway’s sovereignty over the archipelago, but it simultaneously established the equal right of citizens of other signatory nations to carry out economic enterprise, hunt, and fish there.

Norwegian authorities have said that it is necessary to have strict regulations of economic activity, such as helicopter flight around Svalbard, in light of Svalbard’s vulnerable ecosystem.

The Norwegian fishery protection zone around Svalbard, established in 1977, is internationally contested. Nevertheless, most nations have accepted that Norway can regulate fishing in the area.

This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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