Unprofitable coal mining in the Northern archipelago in the Arctic has become the personification of a massive power struggle between Russia and Norway.
Barentsburg, Norway. — This mining town in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard classes at school are conducted in Russian, the products sell for rubles, and a huge sign of the Soviet era States: “Our goal — communism”.
However, this government-funded area of Russia is actually Norwegian and Oslo subsidizes coal mine, located just a few kilometers from Barentsburg. The Svalbard — a very special status because of what this archipelago has become a hot point in the growing confrontation between Russia and the West.
Norway, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Russia provide a subsidy to unprofitable mines, to maintain a strategic presence in this pile of icy Islands. Oslo and Moscow are the main players in this area since 1920, when it signed a multilateral Treaty recognized Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard, but allowed other countries to engage in economic activities.
But on Thursday, Norway will decide whether to continue to invest in coal mining on Spitsbergen. Such a move could weaken its position in these Islands, while Russia strengthens its presence in the Arctic, creating the largest military forces since the cold war.
The situation at Spitsbergen shows how Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to demonstrate the strength and power of his country, no matter what the cost. Russia continues to use its army in the East of Ukraine, while economic sanctions have undermined its economy. It also invests heavily in the defense of other isolated areas of its territory, including the Kuril Islands, which declares their claims Japan.
“I guess this is normal when losing the company operates in foreign territory”, — says Alexander Veselov, head of the Russian state company “Arktikugol”, which is engaged in coal production at the mine and organizing life in Barentsburg. “The government believes that here he has the interests of the state, some roots, he said, sitting in his office where on the wall hangs a portrait of Putin.
Today, when the melting of the ice in the Arctic ocean creates new business opportunities, as Putin strengthens Moscow’s influence abroad, Russia and the Western countries are between a struggle for the strengthening of its positions in the Arctic.
Veselov noted that the Arctic is of great importance for strengthening Russia’s international position and economic development, as there are concentrated huge reserves of oil. Russia is modernizing its Northern fleet, spends in the region of large-scale military exercises, and in the archipelago, near Spitsbergen, has opened a new military base.
Senior executives from the U.S. government, including the Minister of defense of Jim Mattis, expressed concern about Russia’s actions and said that the US needs to adopt a more active Arctic policy. NATO calls the disadvantage of the lack of the naval forces of the Alliance in the Arctic region.
“Svalbard is part of Norway and therefore is part of NATO said Monday the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. — So, of course, all NATO security guarantees apply to the archipelago. As for coal, it is the case of the Norwegian authorities”.
USA do not Express an opinion on the matter.
Oslo plans to purchase new submarines and increases the grouping of troops on the border with Russia.
However, Norway, which is one of the world’s richest countries by income per capita, debating about whether we should continue to Finance coal mining on Spitsbergen. The decision to continue production will cause serious disputes and real scandal, not only because of costs, but also due to the fact that the Norwegians consider themselves the main defenders of the environment.
“We are talking about how much we are willing to spend doing inefficient work, and how relevant for us is the question of the opposition of Russia in the Arctic,” says Overland, Indra (Indra Оverland), who heads the energy Department at the analytical center Norwegian Institute of foreign Affairs, which is partly funded by the state.
The Norwegian government has not let you know what decision it is leaning.
But in Russia there is no debate on this subject is not conducted, although its Treasury is empty due to low oil prices, but also because of international sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea.
The theme of Spitsbergen already caused some active and heated debates. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who after the Russian annexation of Crimea was denied entry to Norway, tweeted their photos taken during a visit in 2015. This has caused complaints and objections from Norway.
In may this year, Norway has caused outrage in Russia, after the NATO meeting. Russian officials say that Norway is squeezing Russia from Spitsbergen, using the fact that the archipelago belongs to her.
According to Veselov, the taxes that “Arktikugol” pays Norway, you go to the city Longyearbyen, which is the largest in the Islands and populated mostly by Norwegians, but not to Barentsburg. He also complains that his company is not allowed to use helicopters to transport tourists, who come mainly from Norway.
However, geopolitical tensions are still not reflected on the workers and their families living on these Islands.
“We have good relations, and we are friends,” says 36-year-old Muscovite Elena Malakhova, working on Spitsbergen in the tourism industry.
The Islands of this archipelago, located 1,300 kilometers from the North pole, desert and devoid of vegetation, and the temperature in winter goes down to minus 20 degrees Celsius. During this period, there does not arise the sun and the polar night reigns.
Miners from both countries to Svalbard attract quite high salaries. In addition, 400 of the inhabitants of Barentsburg provided with medical care, affordable housing, and their children go to school.
Russia started coal production on Svalbard in the 1930-ies, focused on Barentsburg and settlement called Piramida. There were swimming pools, round-the-clock dining, and the shops sold products that in Soviet Union it was impossible to get. When the Soviet Union collapsed the Russian economy, and with it the empty Arctic village Pyramid, because people left him. But by 2006, and the Barentsburg was on the verge of collapse. Norway provided him with food assistance.
In 2007, when the Russian President began to pursue a more assertive and active foreign policy, Svalbard sent a veteran of the coal industry Veselov, instructing him to resume coal production at the mine. Veselov put the guards in the Pyramid, to scare away looters, banned the illegal production of vodka and prostitution in Barentsburg, and then undertook repairs in the city.
However, the time of the coal industry on the wane, and that goes for miners from both countries.
“I think in 15 years there will be no production, at least, judging from the current situation”, — said the chief technologist at the Norwegian state coal mining company Store Norske Nielsen Per (Per Nilssen), citing aging infrastructure at the only Norwegian mine.
Now both countries are engaged in tourism.
In Russian villages the number of visitors over the last four years has doubled, and the income from tourism last year amounted to $ 2.4 million. It’s more than coal mining. Last year the company “Arktikugol” received eight million dollars in public subsidies.
Barentsburg boasts a renovated hotel, mini – brewery tours that take place in the mine. Abandoned village Pyramid became the “Museum of the Soviet Union in the outdoors,” says Timofei Rogozhin, the managing of the tourism industry on the archipelago. In the village centre stands a bust of Vladimir Lenin, looking at the glacier. Norway started the University, and one of the private coal mines became a Museum and film archive. The old shacks of the miners repaired, and now there live tourists. And the warehouse was converted into a restaurant.
However, Norwegian politicians and scientists recognize that if there is no working coal mine, the presence of Norway on the archipelago weakened, as tourism is seasonal.
“Frankly, the purpose of the Norwegian settlements is to approve the sovereignty of Norway over Svalbard,” says political scientist Torbjorn Pedersen (Torbjørn Pedersen), working at the University in Bodø.