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Russian and foreign experts are increasingly paying attention to the situation around the Svalbard archipelago, which international legal status is enshrined in the treaty of February 9, 1920, and note the non-compliance with a number of provisions of this document designed to protect the legitimate interests of all states parties to the agreement.
In their opinion, while claiming “full and absolute sovereignty” over Svalbard, Norway ignores such important provisions as the guarantees of “equal liberty of access and entry” to the archipelago and the possibility of conducting commercial and economic operations there “on a footing of absolute equality.”
Thus, the signatory states are concerned about the decision of Oslo to extend the national continental legislation of the country to Svalbard. The law on environmental protection in the archipelago, adopted in 2001, essentially establishes a permissive procedure for economic activity, and in a significant part of its territory it is completely prohibited. The Russian side fears that an even greater expansion of environmental legislation in the future may affect the work of the Arktikugol company, which ensures the operation of the thermal power plant in Barentsburg, without which the inhabitants of the settlement would have to be evacuated due to the harsh climate.
In addition, Norway considers the 200-mile zone, shelf and seabed surrounding Svalbard to be an area not covered by the 1920 treaty, and sets its own rules there, in particular by distributing concession areas to interested oil companies located within the so-called “ Spitsbergen square.” Apart from Russia, other parties to the agreement, including Great Britain, Iceland and Spain, do not agree with this state of affairs.
The most acute problem is caused by the Norwegian ban on the use of helicopters. Oslo’s position is that this kind of transport can only be used for tasks related to the coal industry. Thus, the country’s authorities artificially created a transport monopoly on Svalbard, forcing Russia to use the services of Norwegian carriers to deliver scientists or tourists to the archipelago.
In addition, in accordance with the treaty, the archipelago should not be used for military purposes, however, experts do not rule out that Oslo will attempt to revise the demilitarized status of the archipelago. Various events held in Longyearbyen with the participation of NATO representatives cannot but cause concern for the parties concerned.
Commenting on the details of the centenary agreement, Christopher Rossi, Adjunct faculty member, University of Iowa College of Law, reminded that Norway’s sovereignty is secured by a treaty in return for a number of important conditions.
“The Svalbard Treaty is an unusual document as it accords Norway sovereignty over the archipelago in exchange for equal use by other signatories to the treaty. This quid pro quo is predicated on non-militarization, which on occasion gets called into question by certain weather and safety devices that appear to Russia to have dual use capability,” the expert told PenzaNews.
He also drew attention to the unusual natural conditions of this area.
“The Arctic is a rapidly changing geospace, given climate change and a rapidly receding polar ice cap. Mineral and living resources previously entombed by the ice cap are becoming increasingly available for purposes of extraction. To prevent a coming competition over these resources, and over the waters and undersea shelf adjacent to Svalbard’s territorial sea, states will need to maintain good neighborly relations,” Christopher Rossi explained.
“This prospect could be challenging given Norway’s assertion of sovereignty over these adjacent resources and competing claims by the European Union, Russia, and other states. The Arctic is fast becoming of global interest – beyond the specific interest of the circumpolar states,” he added.
In turn, Pal Steigan, Norwegian politician, publisher, writer, independent entrepreneur in the field of culture and information technology, reminded that the Svalbard treaty was directly influenced by the First World War.
“Even the big powers wanted to limit military activity in the Arctic, so as a neutral country under the world war and a peaceful, democratic country Norway was given sovereignty, but under the condition of seeing to it that the archipelago remained demilitarized. This was a good idea then, and it remains a good idea now. It is very important that Norway remain loyal to the provisions, or else it would open a Pandora’s box of bad events,” the expert said.
According to him, the peaceful and equal presence of states in the archipelago is the only correct way of interaction.
“Potentially the Arctic could become a war zone with direct influence on three continents. This is dangerous indeed. There are rich natural resources in the high north and a rush for them without fetters could drive more conflict and war. So cooperation is the only alternative,” Pal Steigan said.
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