The sheriff of Svalbard

People | Part bureaucrat, part police officer, Oslo’s top official in Svalbard is in charge of maintaining law, order and the Norwegian way in the territory

The stare is a part of the job. The hat is optional (Photo: Nowegian EU Mission)

Tore Andre Kjetland Fjeldsbø

The first sysselmann, or governor, of Svalbard, Johannes Gerckens Bassøe, arrived in the autumn of 1925. When later writing about his first encounter with the Arctic settlement, he described it as a modern community with all the services of any European society of the time, adding that “the only thing that was lacking was legislation and public administration”.

Since Mr Bassøe’s arrival 90 years ago, the sysselmann has grown to become a viable public institution, employing 37 people working with a variety of issues, from enforcing Norwegian legislation and regulations, policing and ensuring that the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, which declares that “Svalbard is part of Norway”, is upheld.

“The Governor of Svalbard is responsible for enforcing Norwegian law and ensuring laws are being followed in Svalbard,” Odd Olsen Ingerø, whose second, and final, term as sysselmann ends when he retires on October 1, says. “So the sysselmann is part bureaucrat and part police chief.”

The Svalbard Treaty grants citizens and companies from its signatories, a total of 42 countries, the right to engage in certain economic activity in the archipelago. Several foreign companies and research institutions have taken advantage of that right. Best known, perhaps, is Barentsburg, a Russian mining settlement situated some 60 kilometres from Longyearbyen, the capital.

The sysselmann and his organisation are responsible for ensuring that both Norwegian and foreign outfits follow Norwegian laws and regulations. And in a local economy highly dependent on mining in an environmentally sensitive area, this is perhaps most relevant in terms of Norway’s strict labour and environmental regulations.

This is the bureaucrat part of the job. Here helping to do the honours at the opening of a new hangar at Svalbard’s airport (Photo: Norwegian Justice Ministry)

It is little secret that Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, as well as the surprise visit by Dimitry Rogozin, the head of the Kremlin’s commission for Arctic issues, to Svalbard this April has ruffled diplomatic relations between Moscow and Oslo. Local Russian and Norwegian relations in Svalbard, on the other hand, have managed to remain mostly unaffected by national and international disputes.

Still, that does not mean that the situation is a smooth as it could be. The local dialogue, for example, relies heavily on personal relations and good knowledge about the local conditions. The fixed terms served by Norwegian and Russian officials, as well as company officials, means constantly rotating personnel and company representatives.

Jørgen Holten Jørgensen, a Svalbard expert and Russian interpreter who served as an advisor to the sysselmann, explains that the system has the benefit of ensuring that there is a steady flow of new personnel. But in a situation where good relations are vital, this can be harmful, in part because it limits continuity. However, Mr Jørgensen underscores that this is matter officials in both capitals are aware of.

“Alternating staff in the sysselmann’s office is a problem for the organisation’s collective memory, especially since it influences how they relate to the Russians. Still, the main responsibility for adapting lies in this context with the Russians,” he says.

You can tell you have a cool job when they name a helicopter after it (Photo: Norwegian Justice Ministry)

And then there is the challenge of upholding Norwegian legislation in communities with little or no experience of dealing with Norwegian authorities. This is perhaps especially true for Barentsburg, which, aside from the governor’s regular visits, has limited interaction with the rest of Svalbard’s settlements.

“From my own experience, there is a tendency for recently arrived Russian officials to have some difficulties comprehending that they are subject to Norwegian laws in Svalbard,” Mr Jørgensen says. “But, to a degree that is understandable, as Barentsburg in many ways constitutes a small piece of Russia on Norwegian soil.”

In addition to an enforcement role, the sysselmann is also responsible for search and rescue in Svalbard, something that is becoming increasingly important as tourism, shipping and other commercial activity increases. Additional resources have been added in recent year, but, Mr Ingerø admits, there is still a way to go.

“Currently we don’t have the resources to deal with a larger event such as an oil spill or a ship running aground,” he says. “And, realistically, I don’t think we ever will, as this is such a small community. But I would say that as far as daily operations go, we are quite satisfied with the resources we have available.”

Mr Ingerø will return to the Norwegian mainland upon his retirement. His successor, Kjerstin Askholt, will be well suited to replace him: 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.

“Kjerstin Askholt is such a qualified candidate that I don’t have any worries about her taking over the office,” Mr Ingerø says.

It is the scofflaws who should be worried.

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

The Rasmussen’s People articles are interviews or profiles of the individuals who shape – and are shaped by – the region.

This profile was originally included in special focus on Svalbard. Other articles in the series included:
More than just a treaty

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