A Gateway of and for Arctic Geopolitics: Reflections from Svalbard

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I have just had four very interesting days in Longyearbyen, Svalbard and am actually writing this at the small airport that serves this Norwegian territory, governed by the 1920 Spitzbergen Treaty (which entered into force in 1925). This is a place where ‘moorings and mobilities’ matter in equal (and at times unequal) measure. We can also mull over immobilities as well (see below regarding sites of science).

Under the terms of the Treaty, Norway was granted full sovereignty to this northerly archipelago in return for acknowledging that signatories to the Treaty were accorded certain economic rights, which was highly relevant given the history of coal mining and marine exploitation. Non-discrimination is engrained into the DNA of the treaty itself. The treaty also noted that the islands should be demilitarised for the duration of the treaty. There are now 42 signatories to the Treaty.

For much of the intervening period, Norway has had to manage its relationship with signatories such as the Soviet Union with considerable care and concern given Cold War divisions and the involvement of the Soviets in the dominant coal mining industry. While Longyearbyen was predominantly a Norwegian settlement, the Soviets were present at several sites notably Barentsburg. Both Norway and the Soviet Union viewed each other with suspicion, and their moorings (in the form of settlements and extractive industry) and their mobilities (travelling to and from Svalbard) invited surveillance and suspicion.

 

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The decision to build an airport in the mid 1970s was not straight forward. While it brought Svalbard within the reach of regular scheduled flights from mainland Norway, it also meant that the Soviets could also improve their access as well. To further unsettle Norwegians, population numbers at one stage actually favoured their Soviet counterparts. While others were present such as the UK and Germany in terms of a scientific presence, it was the Soviets that always invited the most discomfort. Post 1990s, Russia and its Russian settlement in Barentsburg remains route in Svalbard and mining continues, alongside Norwegian operations. Both are loss-leaders but both signify a kind of settler colonialism – a determination to be seen to be occupying and exploiting the land and its resources (and a corresponding anxiety about a lack of activity, a lack of production, a lack of presence).

Mindful of this historical and geopolitical context, the visit this month was an opportunity to catch up with contemporary situation on the Islands. What remains striking, and an abiding memory from my last trip in 2012, is the continued sensitivities regarding the terms and conditions of the treaty. Coal mining, despite falling world prices and tough operating costs, is desperately important to Norway’s presence on Svalbard. Something like 40% of income generation is still based on coal exports even though tourism, logistics support and science/knowledge generation activities are growing. Both Russian and Norwegian coal operators are planning new activities and Store Norske (the main Norwegian operator) is investing in logistical support in Svalbard and beyond (see below).

It also matters to Russia as well. Coal mining in Barentsburg results in something like 120,000 per tons a year being exported from Svalbard and there have been tensions over the environmental and logistical implications of Russian activities with the Norwegian Governor’s Office in Longyearbyen. While Norway is eager to cement its administrative authority, there have been moments of dispute regarding fishing, the control of Russian helicopter flights and the environmental impact of Russian coal mining activities. In September 2014, it was announced that Russia was opening a ‘Russian Research Centre’ and thus far Russia has not established a research station at the small international hub at Ny-Alesund, a small settlement some 30 minutes flying time from Longyearbyen. In terms of immobilities, there is a clear sense that Norway does not wish to see scientific stations locate much further than the Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny-Alesund areas. The obvious conclusion to draw is that it enables closer monitoring.

 

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But education and science can also be a useful tool in the Norwegian sovereignty maintenance regime. The University Centre (UNIS), established in the mid 1990s, is another important element. The University community represents something like 15% of the total population of over 2600. Norwegian and international students alike come to study geology, biology and technology. The UK is a leading collaborator with UNIS colleagues and it helps to both internationalise Svalbard, albeit again under the watchful guardianship of Norway.

Looking ahead there is clearly a vision emerging of Svalbard being Norway’s Arctic hub serving not only connecting with neighbours such as Greenland and Russia but also as a gateway to the central Arctic Ocean. Tourist, scientific and commercial operators are being encouraged to move in and out of Longyearbyen. The prevalence of what we might term ‘hub-speak‘ (it was ‘rim-speak’ for a while in the 1990s with reference to the Pacific Ocean) was noticeable, especially when connected to how that might relate to possible competition from others such as Iceland. Encouraging such activity also places further pressures on other areas such as search and rescue (SAR) and international agreements notwithstanding it remains to be seen how competent and extensive SAR will be when confronted with a large oil spill or major ship incident.

There is more that could be said about contemporary Svalbard. I have hardly touched upon tourism for example, which is an vital element in the Svalbard economy. But fundamentally you have a fascinating place here to reflect on a particular kind of Arctic geopolitics – a place both highly nationalised and internationalised, a place where mooring and mobilities matter in particular sites and spaces, and a place where everyday life is suffused with reminders about sovereignty. A place also where a treaty negotiated in the aftermath of World War I is stress-tested by newer developments in law, technology, economics and governance. For instance, does the Treaty apply only to the islands and 12 nautical miles around it? Can Norway exploit Svalbard’s oil and gas resources further afield? Can signatories such as Russia exploit those same offshore resources beyond 12 nautical miles? Where, in other words, does the geographical provision of the treaty begin and end? And , finally, a place where people and objects don’t move beyond certain approved places.

If I had a magic wand (which I don’t) I wish I could take my MSc Geopolitics and Security students with me for a return visit. But I would also want to stress to them that Svalbard is only an entree into Arctic geopolitics and clearly there are themes and issues (other moorings and mobilities and other kinds of gateways and hubs) that need further appreciation and reflection.

KD

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