Fishing disputes don’t hamper historic meeting between Norwegian and Russian defense chiefs

Sunde (L) and Makarov (R), in February 2011.

For the first time ever, the Norwegian Chief of Defence is paying a visit to the Russian General of the Army in Moscow. On October 11, Chief of Defence Harald Sunde visited General Nikolai Makarov in Moscow to discuss bilateral cooperation. Over the past two decades, Norway and Russia have built a strong history of conducting joint military exercises. Three times, joint maritime exercises have been carried out, most recently in May 2011 in the Barents and Norwegian Seas. They are named the “Pomor Exercises,” after the high level of trade that occurred between Norway and Russia’s Pomors, a group of people living on the country’s northwest coast on the White Sea, from the 1700s until the Russian Revolution. During the May exercises, soldiers practiced search and rescue, communication, and navigation. The first is especially important given the signing of the Search and Rescue Agreement in May 2011 by the eight member states of the Arctic Council. While the signatories agreed on paper to cooperate on search and rescue issues in the Arctic, in order for the agreement to be effectively implemented, they will have to practice assisting sinking ships and downed aircraft with each other.

During their meeting, Sunde and Makarov spoke about the possibility of including their countries’ armies, air forces, and submarines in future joint exercises. Sunde later visited the 5th Motorized Brigade in Alabino, outside Moscow. He also laid a wreath at Victory Square in Moscow before continuing on to St. Petersburg.

The meeting between the two defense heads comes at a relatively tense time in Norwegian-Russian relations, especially given that the two countries have achieved a significant amount of cooperation in recent history. The high point of the strong relations was the signing and ratification of the treaty delineating the maritime boundary in the Barents Sea between Norway and Russia. Yet lately, Russian fisherman have been protesting Norway’s arrests of fishermen onboard trawlers in waters off Svalbard. The Voice of Russia reports that even though the boundary has been made clear, “Norwegians, for some reason, have only become more active in finding faults with Russian fishermen.” Taking an even harsher tone, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the founder and leader of Russia’s nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party, equated the Norwegian Coast Guard to “European Somali.” He declared that Russian fishing trawlers should be outfitted with the proper weapons to respond to acts of “barbary” by the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard has accused Russian fishermen of illegally dumping fish in a protected zone. It is arresting suspected violators and having their trawlers sail to Tromso for further questioning. Most recently, the Russian trawler “Sapphire II,” a ship that belongs to six fishing collectives in Arkhangelsk, was detained on the same accusations and fined 450,000 kronor (~$80,000). However, the ship’s captain, Vladimir Pisarenko, refused to sail to Tromsø, instead shutting off his engines. The Coast Guard was forced to tow the trawler all the way into port, and it also turned off its communications. Pisarenko declared,

“They took control of the vessel and set a certain course. Then I took countermeasures and simply turned off the engine. Then they got hysteric, seized documents and blocked our radio communication and started to tug my ship.”

Russia sent a diplomatic note in protest to Knut Hauge, the Norwegian Ambassador in Moscow. The situation was discussed by higher-ups in government when Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, spoke with his Norwegian counterpart, Jonas Gahr Støre, by telephone. In a press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov was reported have called upon Norway to “show a constructive approach and take the path of cooperation, particularly through the mechanisms of the Joint Russian-Norwegian Fisheries Commission.” However, the tone of the call seemed cordial. Furthermore, during the meeting between Sunde and Makaraov, neither expressly believed that the fishing dispute would affect long-term cooperation.

The dispute stems from disagreements over the 1920 Svalbard Treaty regarding rights in the waters surrounding the archipelago. Russia adheres to the original language of the treaty. Article 3 states,

“The nationals of all the High Contracting Parties shall have equal liberty of access and entry for any reason or object whatever to the waters, fjords and ports of the territories specified in Article 1; subject to the observance of local laws and regulations, they may carryon there without impediment all maritime, industrial, mining and commercial operations on a footing of absolute equality.”

In 1977, however, Norway began enforcing an exclusive economic zone on waters 200 miles out from the shores of the archipelago, essentially creating the Svalbard Fisheries Protection Zone. Norway stated that the regulations of the Svalbard Treaty only pertained to the island itself and its territorial waters stretching 12 miles out. Outside of that, the EEZ rules would apply. Article 56 of the UNCLOS treaty gives states jurisdiction over the “protection and preservation of the marine environment.” Following this, Norway has the right to put in place whatever environmental regulations it sees fit in its EEZ. Yet Russia does not respect Norway’s stance, and hence believes that its ships should have to follow Russian law while in Svalbard’s waters – not Norwegian law. Joint military exercises may occur in the future, but in the meantime, the dispute over the arrests of Russian fishermen is impeding smooth sailing in the Barents Sea.

News Links

“Fishing Fury,” Shiptalk

“The troubled seas of Svalbard,” Russia Profile

“Russian trawler arrested outside of Svalbard,” TV 2 Nyhetene (in Norwegian)

“Lavrov calls on Norway to show constructive approach,” Barents Observer

“Norwegian coastal guards exceed authority, Russia says,” Voice of Russia

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