Svalbard Arctic out post at strategic crossroads
Bonn — It's a land of 3 1/2-month Stygian night in winter, of four-month unblinking day in summer. It's the norhternmost inhabited spot in the world. It's a research paradise, a strategic listening post, an Arctic desert, a political anomaly. It's home to 1,300 Norwegians, 2,500 Russians, and 3,000 polar bears.
It's the Svalbard Archipelago, or, as it is more commonly known after the group's largest island, Spitsbergen.
"Svalbard is a good place to raise children," comments Marit Vik Solheim, while cheering on her son Bjorn ("Bear"), a Svalbard native, in a footrace outside the Longyearbyen school. Boys and girls are always safe in this small community, and there are lots of activities for them: swimming in the pool adjoining the school, skiing from the time daylight begins to return in February through the mid-May thaw, bicycling, gymnastics, organized sports, band, and various clubs.
Alongside the impromptu race track on the town's main dirt road, clumps of dirty snow that have outlasted the sea-level thaw send rivulets into gullies. Snowmobiles, abandoned for the season, are parked forlornly outside apartment houses. The occasional car that tools past has its rear window caked with mud. The treeless, bushless mountains that surround Longyearbyen are hidden, as usual , in low-lying clouds. Summer, for Svalbard, still means ski caps and mittens for Bjorn and the 250 other youngsters here.
The editor of the weekly Svalbardpostern, Kjetil Anthonsen, has his doubts about the axiom that Svalbard is a child's idyll. He's just finishing a year here at this southern edge of the Arctic pack ice; he likes the place and would have extended another year if his own editor in Kristiansand, 1,500 miles to the south, had approved a longer leave from his home paper. But he thinks Svalbard impoverishes children who stay here too long.
He freely acknowledges the advantages, however. Here every youngster automatically has a place in kindergarten. (On mainland Norway the competition is fierce.)
"But on the other hand you have a dark time, three months of total darkness. I don't think you can imagine what it's like. It's cold, minus 30 degrees F. often. It's stormy and difficult to get out, especially for small children. They get bored. My five-year-old son did, anyway."
Besides, Mr.Anthonsen continues, children are deprived of the sense of changing time and seasons. "My wife teaches in the school, and she asked her seven-year-olds to give signs of spring. In Norway you would guess they would say flowers, grass, and the smells of the earth and forest. The answer here was dirty streets and destroyed snowmobile tracks! It's a very impulse-poor society. We haven't got any smells. We haven't got any flowers or trees."
Anthonsen suggests there is one compensation for this penury of nature: the unique palette of summer light. The rare cloudless hours are a dazzle of blues from sea, sky, and mountain shadows on the snow. The more frequent foggy weeks have an evanescent luminosity that shifts from moment to moment.
Occasionally the winter light, too, can be spectacular, with moonbeams reflected on the fjords, or with the aurora borealis casting an eerie, scintillating design against a suddenly clear sky.
Wages on Svalbard are the same as on the mainland, but taxes are only a quarter as high. And people can buy duty-free liquor at a quarter of the mainland price, as the high alcohol cunsumption (and, some say, hidden alcoholism) in Svalbard attest.
Apart from its low cost, Svalbard is a still backwater. It's predictable and serene. There are chess, bridge, singing, and porcelain-painting clubs. There's a small lending library, open six hours a week. There is the snowmobile fad of recent years, with some 600 now registered in Spitsbergen. There is hunting (through the prize game, the polar bear, has been protected since 1973). And for the singles especially, there's always the cafe/movie house/community center, with its open-face crab sandwiches and cold waffles with goat's cheese.
At the same time there are ample links with the modern world. The community has had a satellite phone hookup with all of Norway for the past six months. There have been thrice-weekly Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) summer flights and thrice-fortnightly winter flights since 1975.
Civic problems in this company town require little citizen initiative. They are resolved by the governor (appointed by the king), or by the Store Norske Spitsbergen Coal-mining Company, which is the one private employer in Svalbard. There is a Longyearbyen town council, made up of the vicar, the editor, the radio operator, and various representatives of the coal company, the trade union , the hunting association, and other groups. But the council has and wants no real political power. It's Store Norske that makes the serious decisions about how much lumber and pipe to import, how many dormitories to construct, how best to remove the leftover scrap to the mainland. Similarly, Svalbard residents are shielded to some extent from unpleasant happenings outside. News of wars and rumors of wars in remote parts of the world like Afghanistan and Iran filter through here only very slowly. Even the ordinary social problems of most communities are conspicuously absent here. They are simply exported to the mainland.
How much life in the Soviet settlements of Barentsburg and Pyramiden corresponds to this Norwegian life in Longyearbyen, nobody here knows for sure. The only access to the Russians is by boat or helicopter -- or, in the last couple of years, snowmobile. The only contacts between the two populations are the three or four joint sports and cultural entertainments each year.
Mrs. Solheim knows from these contacts that the Russians, unlike the Norwegians, raise their own pigs and chickens and their own hothouse vegetables and flowers -- despites the exorbitant heating costs.
Mr. Anthonsen, who accompanied the Norwegian folk dancers when they gave their annual SRO show in the Barentsburg House of Culture recently, knows that the Russians love to trade balalaikas and samovars for pocket calculators and West German mail-order catalogs. (They don't have the Western currency to place orders for anything, but they devour the Western fashions with an eye to sewing new clothes when they get back to civilization.)
Anthonsen knows too that the school for Soviet children goes only as high as the fourth grade, that the percentage of single men is far higher among the Russians than among the Norwegians, and that the Russians live in more primitive communal quarters and eat in common messes. Other Norwegian journalists have discovered that Barentsburg runs on Moscow rather than Oslo time, that vehicles bear Soviet licenses, and that the Soviet miners seem to be ignorant of the fact that they are on Norwegian territory. "In Norway?!" one perplexed Russian demanded of a TV reporter who asked how he liked living in Norway. "But this is Svalbard, isn't it?"
Beyond these bits and pieces it's something of a mystery how the Russians live or even just what all of them do. With a population twice as great as the Norwegians and a working population perhaps three times as great, and with very modern equipment, they still mine only 400,000 tons of coal per year, to the Norwegians' 300,000 tons.
The tacit assumption is that many Spitsbergen Russians are in fact engaged in military intelligence, for remote, bucolic Svalbard has assumed a critical strategic importance in the past decade. The pastoral everyday life of the Longyearbyen miners is deceptive.
Svalbard's transformation began with the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the early 1970s. No oil has yet been discovered on the archipelago itself, but there is a strong possibility of finding oil under the still unprospected Svaldbard continental shelf. There are also manganese nodules to be had from the seabed.
The transformation accelerated during the mid-'70s with the advent of Soviet long-range bombers that could threaten the vital America-to-Europe North Atlantic supply routes from bases in the Soviet Kola Peninsula -- or more effectively from the Svalbard airfield.
It accelerated even faster in the late '70s with the arrival of Soviet strategic submarines that could travel under ice and could fire their nuclear missiles at American targets 5,000 miles away without exiting from the Barents Sea trench.
As a result of these developments, Thomas Ries summarizes in the March issue of the International Defense Review, Svalbard "lies in the center of the operating areas . . . of the newest Soviet strategic nuclear missile submarines"; is near "the largest naval basing complex in the world, on the Kola Peninsula, as well as astride the access and exit routes of the [Soviet] Northern Fleet moving between the Kola bases and the Atlantic"; and "lies beneath the direct flight paths of ICBMs and strategic bombers passing between the industrial and demographic heartlands of the USA and the USSR."
Today, Mr. Ries continues, 70 percent of all Soviet strategic submarines (including 75 percent of the most advanced models), 35 percent of all Soviet tactical subs, and 40 percent of all Soviet major surface combatants (with 65 percent of the most advanced vessels) are based on Kola.
Under these circumstances it's not suprising that Norway, a member of NATO, runs some quiet intelligence operations in Svalbard and in the line of underwater sonar monitors stretching from Svalbard's southeastern neighbor of Bear Island to North Cape. The 1980 parliamentary defense report in Oslo praised these and similar operations as enhancing stability and confidence for both East and West.
Norway sends one yearly naval cruise here as an expression of its sovereignty. The demilitarized status that Oslo declared for Svalbard in 1920 precludes any permanent naval base.
More sensitively -- Mr. Ries revealed publicity for the first time -- Norwe gians say, because the P-3B requires no "fortifications" and its reconnaissance does not constitute a "warlike purpose."
For its part, the United States for the first time declared a strategic interest in the Barents Sea in 1979, and, Ries reports, "It appears that the US Navy is currently studying ASW [anti-submarine warfare] operations against Soviet submarines under the Arctic ice." Any such warfare would be impeded by Soviet control of Svalbard and consequently of the two main underwater trenches leading into the Barents Sea. (The only other corridors to Arctic waters -- through the Bering Strait and the Davis Strait west of Greenland -- are shallower than 3,300 feet and are therefore easily mined.)
For the Soviet Union Svalbard is even more vital. The use of the Spitsbergen airfield in any superpower confrontation would enable Soviet planes, which do not yet have any heavy-duty naval carriers to fly from and would otherwise have to refuel in midair, to intercept US planes before the latter could launch their soon-to-be-acquired 1,550- mile-range cruise missiles at the Kola armada.
The Russians therefore find it prudent to use their treaty-guaranteed presence on Svalbard to run a few intelligence and quasi-military operations of their own. The most visible activities include the unabashed photographing by Soviet Aeroflot personnel (with at least one identified KGB officer among them) of every SAS passenger who arrives in Longyearbyen; sensor patrols by TY-16 Badgers (revealed when one of these planes crashed on the southern tip of Svalbard in 1978); the building of a heliport and radar station near Barentsburg in 1978 without notifying the sovereign Norwegians); the various Soviet glacier-exploration expeditions" to remote parts of the islands, led by a known high-ranking KGB officer, Yevgeni Mikhailovich Singer; and the Soviet Maintenance at Barentsburg of five 28-man MI-8 helicopters (against the Norwegians' two 4-man helicopters in Longyearbyen). Specialists calculate that it would take the Soviets about 30 minutes to occupy the Longyearbyen airport, should the occasion arise, according to Peg Egil Hegge, a Norwegian journalist.
Svalbard's unique legal status goes back to the tidying up of the European map in the wake of World War I. The former no man's land of Svalbard -- which was discoevered by Vikings in the 12th century and visited sporadically thereafter by Norwegian and other whalers, sealers, and eventually coal miners -- was awarded to Norway. There was one catch, however: Any nation that took the trouble to sign the 1920 Svalbard Treaty could conduct economic and scientific activitiy on the islands at will. The United States signed on. So did the infant USSR. So did such other world powers as Albania, Afghanistan, and the Dominican Republic, for a total of 41 states.
Norway, a fifth of whose territory now consisted of Svalbard, bought out many foreign land claims on Spitsbergen to secure Norwegian interests. The Soviet Union not only kept its old claims, but expanded them, by buying out the Swedish coal mines at Barentsburg. No one else bothered much with Svalbard, except for the stray ornithologist or geologist attracted by the fantastic auk and puffin colonies.
As World War II began drawing to a close, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov informed the Norwegian government in exile that Moscow wished to renegotiate the original treaty to allow militarization of Svalbard -- and, it appeared, to split the archipelago's governance between Norway and the Soviet Union. Norway declined. Oslo never challenged such practices as exclusive Soviet handling of Soviet citizens' mail or overstaffing of Soviet mines, however. And the Russians routinely ignore Norwegian safety and pollution regulations and registration rules for automobiles, radios, power stations, and scientific expeditions.
From 1975 on, the Norwegians have tried to assert more of their sovereign rights vis-a-vis the Russians, but the results have been minimal. In the mid-' 70s the Norwegians did win -- more or less -- the "marriage beds" quarrel. This affairs blew up after the Norwegians built the Longyearbyen airstrip in 1975. They agreed to Aeroflot flights from Moscow and Murmansk twice a month, and they reluctantly agreed in a treaty that what seemed an excessive 6 Soviet ground controllers (the Russians originally asked for 36) could be stationed permanently in Longyearbyen to service the fortnightly Soviet flights.
This had no sooner been settled on than the wives of the Soviet controllers turned up in Longyearbyen expecting to live there as well. The Norwegians protested, citing the treaty and declaring that the scarce available beds were single only and were in no way to be construed as double. The Russians retorted that the beds met Soviet standards for doubles. The eventual compromise now allows one Soviet wife at a time to be present in Longyearbyen.
A more serious feud raged over the black box of the crashed Soviet military plane in 1978. The Russians wanted the flight recording back immediately. The Norwegians delayed until they themselves had inspected it thoroughly.
In the absence of any similar incident in the 1980s, this decade's Svalbard skirmishing promises to be less dramatic. It concerns the division of economic rights in disputed Barents Sea waters. The Soviet Union, while generally claiming a dividing line farther west than Norway claims, is willing to grant Norway an additional bulge of sea around Svalbard. It is not, willing to cede -- as Norway maintains -- that the Svalbard shelf is part of the Norwegian continental shelf. (Nor, for that matter, are Washington and London willing to recognize this claim of Oslo's.)
The reason for this legalistic nit-picking is that if Svalbard's shelf is its own, it is open to exploitation to all the 1920 signatories. But if Svalbard's shelf is in fact Norway's continental shelf, the signatory nations could carry their rights to economic activity only to the four- mile territorial waters specified in the original treaty.
But one of te charms of Longyearbyen is that all these monumental duels seem unreal to the ordinary townspeople, as remote as if they were happening at the South Pole. The local hairdresser, as remote as if they were happening at the South Pole. The local hairdresser, the drivers of the island's three taxis, the old-timers who are nostalgic for the long- ago peaceful winters when the only outside intrusion was the monthly parachute mail drop -- none of them talk or presumably even think about nuclear missiles and oil claim jumping.
For them the important thing is not the East-West contest, but Bjorn Solheim's schoolboy race. It's a quiet life indeed, here in the eye of the storm.