Big trouble in little Svalbard | Polarjournal
The 2,400 inhabitants of Longyearbyen and the thousands of tourists depend on regular flights to get to the Norwegian mainland quickly. But for a week now, almost nothing has been possible due to a pilots’ strike at SAS. Image: Michael Wenger

Svalbard has in many ways a special position both in Norway and in the world. This stems from the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920, in which Norway was given the administration of the archipelago and thus also Norwegian law. Nevertheless, some things run differently in Longyearbyen than on the Norwegian mainland. This is not least due to two things: the isolated location of the archipelago and the other country that has gained a foothold here, namely Russia. And both have now given Svalbard very turbulent days.

A pilot strike at SAS since last Monday, July 4, and a dispute between Norway and Russia over a supply transport to the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg led to Svalbard and its capital Longyearbyen suddenly being thrust into the spotlight last week. While the former affected thousands of tourists from all over the world and the approximately 2,400 inhabitants of Longyearbyen, the latter even raised fears of an escalation between Russia and Norway. And no matter which of the two situations you look at, both were bad for Svalbard.

The Scandinavian airline SAS does not operate the only flight connection to Svalbard, but it is the most frequent. The pilots’ strike made it almost impossible to reach the archipelago, leaving many people stranded in Longyearbyen. Image: Heiner Kubny

The announcement that the pilots of the Scandinavian airline SAS would go on strike was already known before the July 4 deadline. But the many tour operators who had booked their guests on the flights from Oslo and Tromsø were not left with many alternative options. Charter flights are not easy to organize quickly and the other airline serving Svalbard, Norwegian, does so only a few times a week and getting their tickets was practically impossible. As a result, both the local population and the many tourists who had sailed around the archipelago on ships were suddenly stuck on Svalbard. And those tourists who had booked a trip after July 4 and did not travel on charter flights were stuck at home. For tourism representatives in Longyearbyen and many affected ship operators, this was another hard blow after the Corona years.

In the meantime, the pilots’ representation of SAS has agreed with the Sysselmesteren on Svalbard on an exemption for flights until next Sunday. This will allow people in Longyearbyen to get to and from the island at least once a day. In addition, some charter flights have taken place and even a large cruise ship is still taking passengers.

What happens after July 17 depends on the further course of the strike. But for SAS, the strike is likely to have a very negative impact, because according to official figures, it costs around 10 million euros a day. And for an airline that has just initiated in the U.S. Chapter 11 under the U.S. Banruptcy Code, the so-called “reorganization bankruptcy” to implement the company’s own transformation plan SAS FORWARD, such losses are a bitter setback.

The second reason for the great turbulence on the small archipelago lies in the supply of the Russian mining settlement Barentsburg. Less than a month ago, Norwegian authorities had stopped two containers with supplies for the more than 400 inhabitants of Barentsburg on the mainland and prevented them from further delivery. They referred to the economic sanctions against Russia, which Norway supports, and the fact that the containers had been transported by Russian vehicles, in violation of the sanctions.

Russia protested in the strongest terms against this obstruction and accused Norway of violating the Spitsbergen Treaty by doing so. In response, the Kremlin announced that it would take a closer look at the 2010 agreement on the demarcation of the Barents Sea, which would have meant a de facto termination of the agreement. According to experts, this would have led to a fishing dispute between the two countries. Norway then allowed the further transport of the goods at the beginning of July, which have since arrived in Longyearbyen by ship and are now being transported further.

But whether this means Russia will withdraw its threat about a “reinterpretation” of the Barents Sea agreement is an open question. Norwegian officials deny that they have allowed themselves to be pressured by this. Experts on the treaty also tell local media in Svalbard that the blockade of the goods was not legal. It was based on the version of the treaty translated into Norwegian. However, if one takes the original French text, everything is formulated more clearly and precisely and therefore the dispute could have been avoided, explains one expert.

Dr. Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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