More than just a treaty

Quarterly Report | Svalbard

“Applies throughout Svalbard”. A reminder of who’s in charge?

This week, the office of the sysselmann, or governor, of Svalbard, will officially be handed over to Kjerstin Askholt. Ms Askholt assumes her duties as Oslo’s appointed representative in the archipelago on October 1.

In keeping with tradition, the new sysselmann has a background in the Justice Ministry. Ms Askholt will be particularly well placed to in the sysselmann’s office: she has been working with polar affairs since 2003, most recently as director-general of the Polar Affairs Department, which is responsible for formulating Norway’s Svalbard policy.

Among the new sysselmann’s most pressing tasks will be keeping up the good relations with the Russian settlement at Barentsburg. Traditionally, that is a task that has relied heavily on personal relations and good knowledge about the local conditions. Ms Askholt, despite her credentials, will be doubly challenged in this area: firstly, she must build up a relationship with the Russian officials there. Secondly, Western sanctions against Russia, and the uncertainty over Moscow’s actions in the region, mean that, in this instance, not all politics is local.

SEE RELATED: Not black and white

Another issue facing the new sysselmann will be the changing direction of Svalbard’s economy. Store Norske, the state-owned coal-mining firm that is the archipelago’s biggest employer, has run on hard times of late, and last month continued a string of bad news when it announced it would lay off up to two-thirds of its workforce by 2016, leaving the firm with 100 employees in Svalbard.

If coal is looking increasingly less viable as Svalbard’s economic foundation, what will replace it? Perhaps another form of mining, says Christin Kristoffersen, who will be stepping down after five years as mayor of Longyearbyen at the end of this year. “Coal may not be a part of our future, but Store Norske has a value as an industrial engine. Something like this is especially important in the High North.”

In addition to industry, Svalbard is betting that maritime activity, research, particularly in the field of climate change, education and tourism will provide its economic base in the years to come.

“The main issue is to take care of societal developments,” Ms Kristoffersen says. “Basically, we are a sound society but we have some of the most expensive infrastructure in the world. We need an economy that can support that.”

The handover of the office of the sysselmann’s office this week has given us occasion to look at the current state of affairs in Svalbard. In addition to a comment, written by Ms Kristoffersen, about the direction in which the territory is headed, we’ll also provide insight into the responsibilities of the sysselmann.

In our ‘Arctic, Explained’ series, we’ll consider the Svalbard Treaty, the 1920 agreement that, on the one hand, incontrovertibly states that “Svalbard is part of Norway”, yet, on the other, places some conditions on its control.

Away from the political discussions, we’ll take a closer look at the future of Store Norske and mining in the archipelago, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a secure seed bank, and some of the other science being conducted in Svalbard.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

The Rasmussen’s Quarterly Reports provide an in-depth look at an issue or event relating to the Arctic, or a survey about a location in the region. 

Other articles in this report about Svalbard include:
The gene bank of last resort
The sheriff of Svalbard

Breaking through
It depends on what the definition of ‘in’ is

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