Norway aims to upset the apple cart of Russia’s plans for education centre at Svalbard

By Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer - June 3, 2024
Comrade Lenin has a great panorama view over the main street in Pyramiden with the Nordenskióld glacier in the background. The Soviet-style mining town was abandoned in the late 1990ties. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Norway’s UNIS – The University centre in Svalbard – shall be the only to offer higher education, the Government’s Report to the Parliament makes clear.

“Svalbard is an important part of Norway. At a time of major changes, the governance of Svalbard must continue to be predictable and maintain a steady course. We want to strengthen national control and support Norway’s presence in the archipelago,” says Norway’s Minister of Justice and Public Security, Emilie Enger Mehl as she in Longyearbyen on Friday presented the Government’s new Report to the Storting (Parliament).

It was last summer Russia announced plans to build a science complex for international partners at the Norwegian archipelago. As a signatory to the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, Moscow has the right to engage in exploitation of natural resources.

The coal mining town of Barentsburg with about 300 inhabitants also facilitating for tourism and Arctic research.

Partners from Moscow’s so-called ‘friendly nations’ will be invited to join the new science centre to be built in the ghost-town of Pyramiden. In April 2024, the Barents Observer could report about how Russia expended the plans to not only focus on Arctic natural science, but also outlined options for practical studies for students in summer and winter.

Much like what Norway’s UNIS centre in Longyearbyen is doing today.

Russia’s plans also expands the research directions beyond natural science by including studies like ethnographic-humanities, cultural-historical, paleography and medical biology.

“There is a need for clear and strong Norwegian research management on Svalbard,” the Government’s report to the Parliament states.

“…. the Government sees a need for further measures,” the report continues and says it therefore will “establish a separate Svalbard science office (Svalbard Science Office).”

Resources from the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Research Council of Norway will be earmarked and the Government underlines its all about having “a clearer Norwegian research management and to get an even better overview of the development of research in Svalbard.”

“The Svalbard Science Office shall follow up the research strategy for Svalbard, be a Norwegian point of contact for the research community that has, or wishes to conduct research in Svalbard, and they shall prepare an annual report on all research activity in Svalbard,” the Government says in a separate press-release.

Norway wants another direction than Moscow for research- and science education at Svalbard. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Russia’s plan to facilitate for students puts a special emphasis on partnership with universities and research institutions from the BRICS+ and what Moscow brands as ‘friendly countries.”

Citizens of every signature country to the Svalbard Treaty can enter the archipelago without holding a Norwegian Schengen-visa. Among others, that includes researchers and students from China, North Korea, Venezuela and Saudi-Arabia.

Murmansk Marine Biological Institute (MMBI) plays a key role in Russia’s planned science centre which in addition to Pyramiden is planned to have activities in Barentsburg, Coles Bay and Grumant, all Soviet-run mining locations. MMBI is a partner to China’s Polar Institute.

The new Sino-Russian alliance appearing at Svalbard marks a shift for Russia’s Arctic science.

“In 2022, cooperation with unfriendly countries stopped, although before that it was actively developing. Now the vector has turned to the East, we are developing cooperation with our Chinese colleagues,” said Denis Moiseev, Deputy Director for science with the Murmansk Marine Biological Institute, interviewed by Komsomolskaya Pravda.

“Last year we signed an agreement with the Polar Research Institute of China to work in the Arctic, including Svalbard. We are discussing the participation of Chinese scientists in our expeditions, and ours in theirs. Also, the government commission on Spitsbergen [Russian name for Svalbard] approved the creation of the BRICS scientific center on the archipelago,” Moiseev said.

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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