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'I am not in the least going around worrying'

'There is no one, as far as I know, who in all seriousness would challenge the Svalbard Treaty', Governor Odd Olsen Ingerø said during his speech on May 17. FOTO: Geir Barstein

'I am not in the least going around worrying'

Svalbard Governor Odd Olsen Ingerø spent his final May 17 in Svalbard emphasizing Norwegian's sovereignty over the archipelago is not threatened.

In April, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin appeared unannounced in Svalbard. Rogozin made everyone aware of the visit by posting a self-portrait on Twitter. The Russian politician, following the crisis in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, is persona non grata in the EU and Norway, and therefore an undesirable in Svalbard. Unsurprisingly, the visit attracted enormous attention, both nationally and internationally.

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The influx of Norwegian and foreign journalists raising questions about Norway's sovereignty over Svalbard has been considerable, and Ingerø used his annual Norwegian Constitution Day address to emphasize that sovereignty is not threatened.

"There is no one, as far as I know, who in all seriousness would challenge the Svalbard Treaty," he said from the podium to a festooned audience during the gala at Kulturhuset that is the traditional local evening celebration during the Syttende Mai national holiday.

In an interview with Svalbardposten after the gala, he said the recent controversies shouldn't be blown out of proportion.

"I don't believe that there is a relevant issue that we should think is putting us in such a situation," he said.
What about the annexation of Crimea and Rogozin comparing it to Russia's claims to the Arctic?

"Yes, but they are not two sides of the same coin," Ingerø said. "What separates Svalbard from Finnmark – or Østfold, for that matter? It would be as great a violation."

'No doubt'
Rogozin was heading to the inaugural ceremony for a military training ice camp near the North Pole and had to change planes in Longyearbyen. Officially, the onward journey was postponed due to bad weather at the ice camp. Rogozin therefore went to Barentsburg, where he tweeted eagerly about the visit. He also stated he wants more Russians coming to Svalbard, which resulted in subsequent disagreements about the interpretation of the comment. What did he really mean: Russian tourists or Russian activity, settlements and presence?

Ingerø declined to offer an interpretation, but referred to normal relations between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, and said he has never experienced anything resembling a serious protest against the Norwegian exercise of authority.

"I think the question of Norwegian sovereignty is not under pressure. There is no doubt that we have full sovereignty, said Ingerø, who in the past has fielded many inquiries from foreign journalists about Norway's sovereignty over Svalbard and the solidness of the Svalbard Treaty.

"For me it is obvious that if one were to put it in doubt for Svalbard, then the question might as well be raised elsewhere," he said. "I am not in the least going around worrying."

Pushing the boundaries
Ingerø's assertions are supported by Jørgen Holten Jørgensen, a researcher at the Fritjof Nansen Institute, and an expert on the Svalbard Treaty and the relationship between Norway and Russia in Svalbard.

"The governor has no reason to be concerned," Jørgensen said. "Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard is undisputed; what is not clear is how far the exercise of authority can extend. Over time we have seen that the boundaries have increasingly been moved in Norway's favor. What the Norwegian authorities can allow themselves today is far more than what they could 20 years ago. Things that would have resulted in international outrage and massive political pressure during the Cold War are today seen as quite ordinary management issues."

That applies both on land and in the Fisheries Protection Zone, according to the researcher who has written several articles about the Svalbard Treaty for Svalbardposten.
In one of those articles, he rejected the argument that Rogozin's visit was a challenge to the Svalbard Treaty or Norwegian sovereignty.

"The visit was a challenge against the sanctions regime we and the EU have introduced against him and several centrally placed Russian officials," he stated, adding "In addition he also managed for the Norwegian authorities to give him the reaction and attention he hoped for."

"The Arctic is popular and scandals are popular," Jørgensen noted. "The combination, topped off with the poor relations that currently prevail between Russia and the West are, of course, top material for the press. Questions relating to sovereignty of and jurisdictional practices in Svalbard are rather complicated and only very few journalists have the necessary knowledge to understand the issues adequately. Rogozin's visit was basically not a threat to Norwegian sovereignty in Svalbard, but the case got such a slant in the media – partly due to misunderstandings, but also helped by the foreign ministry."

Jørgensen described the situation on Svalbard as "business as usual." Russia was represented at the May 17 celebration in Longyearbyen by, among others, Russian Consul General in Svalbard Yury Gribkova and Trust Arktikugol Director-General Alexander P. Veselov. The former congratulated Norway on the 201st anniversary of its independence and came with the best of greetings while speaking at a gathering at the Skjæringa memorial paying tribute to the fallen soldiers of World War II.

A week earlier, Norwegian and Russian authorities met business and other organizations in Barentsburg. On May 9, two full helicopters flew from Longyearbyen to Kapp Heer with passengers invited to Barentsburg for the commemoration of the victory of "The Great Patriotic War," also known as the liberation.

"That is one example of how the world goes on," Ingerø said. "There we were selected when that happened 70 years ago and then we got a significant help to liberate Finnmark. The Russians allowed that, with heavy costs for their own forces."


Se bildet større

Russian Consul General in Svalbard Yury Gribkov speaking at the gathering at the Skjæringa memorial. FOTO: Eirik Palm

Se bildet større

Jørgen Holten Jørgensen, researcher at Fritjof Nansen Institute, and expert on the Svalbard Treaty and the relationship between Norway and Russia in Svalbard. FOTO: FNI

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