Russia complains of Norwegian restrictions on its activities on Svalbard

Norway's foreign ministry said the issues weren't new ones.

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The town of Longyearbyen is seen in the late evening light in Svalbard, Norway, August 4, 2019. (Hannah McKay / Reuters file photo)

MOSCOW — Russia on Tuesday accused Norway of restricting its activities on Svalbard and said it wanted talks with Oslo to resolve the issue.

Svalbard, a remote Norwegian Arctic archipelago about 850 kilometers (500 miles) north of mainland Norway, is seen as a potential flashpoint between Moscow and the West as climate change has opened up the Arctic to more activity and Russia has built up its military presence in the region.

Though the tourism and services sectors are growing on Svalbard, the traditional industry has been coal mining and a Russian coal mining company has operated in the town of Barentsburg for decades. There is no oil or gas exploration near the islands.

The territory is regulated by a 1920 treaty, which grants Norway sovereignty but allows other signatories, including Russia, residence and commercial rights.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has formally asked Oslo for talks to address what Moscow says are restrictions that go against the treaty’s guarantees of “equal liberty of access and entry,” the foreign ministry said.

“We expect a positive reply from the Norwegian side,” it said.

Of particular concern, Moscow listed issues including a deportation procedure exclusively for Russian nationals, the establishment of a fish protection zone it called illegal and the “expansion of nature protection zones that limit economic activity.”

It also pointed to restrictions on the use of a Russian helicopter and said there were several other additional problems.

“We do not intend to curtail our presence there. On the contrary, we have long-term plans for strengthening, diversifying and modernizing it,” it said.

The Norwegian foreign ministry confirmed receiving the letter, but said Moscow’s grievances were well known.

“The issues put forward in the letter are regularly raised by Russia and are well-known to Norwegian authorities,” the ministry said in an email to Reuters.

“All activities in Svalbard must take place in accordance with Norwegian law,” it added, without giving further details.

Reporting by Tom Balmforth; additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo.