Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Spitzbergen Becoming an Arctic Hot Spot for Russia, West

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 30 – Last week, Moscow announced that it was sending its rocket cruiser Marshal Ustinov to patrol around the Spitzbergen archipelago and said it continue to dispatch naval vessels there on a regular basis to defend its rights under the 1920 Paris accord on the use of those Arctic islands.
But because that accord, to which the Soviet Union acceded in 1935, gives Oslo sovereignty over those islands, because Norway is a member of NATO and because Scandinavian countries are concerned about the delicate ecological situation on those islands, Moscow’s move threatens to turn that archipelago into an Arctic “hot spot.”
On February 9, 1920, Great Britain, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the United States, France, Sweden and Japan signed an accord in Paris proclaiming Norwegian sovereignty over Spitzbergen but opening the way for all signatories to participate in the economic development of that Arctic archipelago (
As the treaty allowed, the USSR signed the Paris accord in 1935, thus acquiring all the rights of the original signatories of that agreement, a position that was reaffirmed in February 1947 when Oslo officially recognized Soviet economic interests and rights in those far northern islands (For the history of this dispute, see
Already in the 1930s, Moscow began developing coal mines there, which were producing 230 to 250 thousand tons a year in the 1960s and 1970s but are now producing only about 90,000 tons annually. But now many expect to find oil and gas deposits, a hope that has increased the importance of the islands for all concerned.
“From a formal point of view,” Russian legal experts say, “Oslo does not have any juridical basis for revising the legal position of Russian [mines and other facilities] on Spitzbergen.” That is because its sovereignty was recognized only on condition of recognizing the right of other powers to engage in economic activities there.
But three factors have prompted Norway to try to restrict the Russian presence there. First, since 1951, that archipelago and the adjoining Norwegian islands of Nadezhda and Medvezhiy have been included in the zone of NATO’s responsibility, even though the Russians say that contradicts both the Paris accord and Soviet-Norwegian agreements signed in the 1940s.
Second, ecology activists in Scandinavia and Europe more generally have pressed Oslo to impose restrictions on economic activities that might destroy the fragile eco-systems on the islands, restrictions that Russian officials say are in reality intended to limit Moscow’s ability to operate there.
And third, as a result of global warming and rising demand for oil and gas, the Arctic has become more important for all countries in the region as a possible source of new supplies of hydrocarbons. That makes Spitzbergen more important for Norway, which wants to develop these sectors there – but also for Russia which has similar plans.
From Moscow’s perspective, the steps Norway has taken in recent years – including claims of a 200 mile economic exclusion zone -- represent new territorial demands against the Russian Federation, demands that if recognized would extend Oslo’s economic exclusion zone to the Western shores of Russia’s Franz Joseph archipelago to the east of Spitzbergen.
In recent years, this back and forth has generally been confined to diplomatic exchanges and international legal commentaries, but Norway’s “arrest” of Russian fishing trawlers near Spitzbergen and now Russia’s dispatch of ships to “protect” them suggest that these distant islands may become another “apple of discord” between Moscow and the West in the Arctic.

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