Moscow continues to push for BRICS science centre at Svalbard

By Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer - June 17, 2024
Pyramiden is 50 kilometers north of Longyearbyen and was a Soviet-run mining town until the 1990ties. Russia plans to give rebirth to the settlement, now as an international science and education centre for BRICS countries. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

“The idea of creating an international centre is actively discussed, it has not been removed from the agenda,” says Natalia Golubeva with Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science.

The statement from Moscow comes two weeks after the Norwegian Government presented its White Paper on Svalbard policy. Here, Oslo makes it clear that UNIS – the University Centre of Svalbard shall be the only to offer higher education at the archipelago that is under Norwegian sovereignty.

Natalia Golubeva from the Russian ministry talked about the planned Svalbard BRICS science centre with journalists on the sidelines of the working group on cooperation in the oceanic and polar zones of research within the framework of Russia’s BRICS chairmanship in Murmansk before the weekend.

“Now everything depends on the political situation, how much everyone will be ready to support and, so to speak, develop,” Interfax quoted Golubeva saying.

Partners to the project can be China, India, Iran and United Arab Emirates. All are BRICS countries by Moscow considered to be “friendly states”.

Last August, the Russian foreign ministry downgraded neighboring Norway from “unfriendly” to “very unfriendly.”

Shortly after, Russia presented the plans to build an international science complex in the ghost-town of Pyramiden. As a signatory to the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, Moscow has the right to engage in exploitation of natural resources.

As coal runs low in the settlement of Barentsburg, Moscow engages in a broader academic focus to maintain its presence at the geopolitical strategic Arctic archipelago. By inviting other nations, the initiative challenges both Norway’s University centre in Longyearbyen, and the already operating international science community in Ny-Ålesund further north on the island.

Both China and India have Arctic research activities in Ny-Ålesund.

A main partner for establishing the new science centre in Pyramiden is Murmansk Marine Biological Institute (MMBI), a branch of the Russian Academy of Science. Deputy science director, Denis Moiseev, said to Interfax he expect the centre to be established this year. “We expect that the order of the Government of the Russian Federation on the establishment of a scientific center will be signed soon,” Moiseev said and added: “Practical work will begin this year.”

Last year, MMBI signed a cooperation agreement with the Polar Research Institute of China. The partners aim to conduct expeditions in the Arctic, including Svalbard, the Barents Observer previously reported.

Like Russia, also Beijing has signed the Svalbard Treaty.

Russkiy Dom (the Russian House) is Arktikugol’s tourism centre in Longyearbyen. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Russia’s plans for science and higher education at Svalbard includes:

  • Main science centre will be in Pyramiden, with departments to be established in Grumant, Coles Bay and Barentsburg.
  • Both field-research and practical studies for students in summer and winter.
  • Studies include ethno-humanities, cultural-historical, paleography and medical biology.
  • A consortium of research- and educational institutions and organizations from friendly states will be created.

Denis Moises with MMBI said to Interfax that the BRICs centre will become an analogue of the Norwegian Svalbard International University (UNIS).

More than 50 scientists from BRICS countries participated at the Murmansk conference on oceans and Polar research this week, the Rossiskaya Gazeta reported.

UNIS – The University Centre in Svalbard was established in 1993 and has some 700 students from more than 40 countries of which some 50 % are Norwegians. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Located in Kirkenes, Norway, just a few kilometres from the borders to Russia and Finland, the Barents Observer is dedicated to cross-border journalism in Scandinavia, Russia and the wider Arctic.

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