Is Svalbard a country? Here at YPT we are fairly interest in (obsessed by) the idea and the rules of what constitutes a country. In October we are heading to Svalbard, so let’s tackle the question: Is Svalbard a country? And if not, what exactly is it?
Is Svalbard a country? No, it is part of Norway
At face value the answer is easy: no, Svalbard is not a country, it is a part of Norway. It may be at least halfway between actual Norway and the North Pole, but the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 recognised Svalbard as a sovereign part of the Kingdom of Norway. Not a dependency, but a sovereign part. It does though have a rather unique status!
What is the status of Svalbard?
However, it is a bit trickier this. Svalbard is also a free economic zone and a demilitarised zone, reflecting its geographical location and importance for access to the Arctic and historical use by various countries, from the Netherlands to Denmark, and Norway to the Soviet Union and its successor state, Russia. The British, as you can imagine, also tried to have their say whenever they could too.
In fact, one of the reasons the British weren’t able to have more of a say in the future of Svalbard is that firstly World War One messed with proceedings, but also the USA had been heavily involved in the beginning of the coal mining industry on the archipelago.
Probably in order to annoy the British, but mainly to ensure equal access to the area for all nations, Svalbard was recognised as Norwegian, but all countries who signed the agreement were granted non-discriminatory rights to hunting, fishing, mineral resources and arctic exploration.
Svalbard in World War 2
The Germans, of course, laid their claim during World War Two, but their garrison on Svalbard claimed the unlikely prize of being the actual last Germans to surrender during the war; not because of their unflinching loyalty, they just hadn’t heard that the war in Europe had ended. When they did, they surrendered straight away to the captain of a seal-hunting vessel.
Svalbard and the USSR
After the war, the Soviet Union attempted to mediate joint administration with Norway, but Norway refused. The archipelago did retain its status as a free zone, however, and the Soviet presence remained strong, actually having the majority of the population.
Today Svalbard is a visa-free zone: you can be from any country and live and work there indefinitely. Some have even used it as a base to eventually gain Norwegian citizenship. Unfortunately, though you may be able to enter Svalbard on any passport, you have to go through Norway and therefore need a Schengen visa.
So there you have it, Svalbard is definitely a part of Norway, but it’s certainly a unique part, and we think that its history and status basically makes it an actual country and one for the collectors. Like we have said before if you simply turned up in Svalbard on a seal-hunting ship would that count as having visited Norway? The answer to that is a definite no, and you’ll realise why when you’re sipping a (relatively) cheap beer in tax-free Longyearbyen!
Svalbard and the Russia – Ukraine conflict
So is Svalbard a country? We have already answered this with a very resounding no, but it is also not exactly a normal place. One area where this has been significant has been that is one of the few places where the Russian Federation and the EU/Schengen have have managed to live in relative harmony. Then the Russians invaded Ukraine and to put things lightly tensions have flared.
As things currently stand life is going on as normal as possible, but where western people and companies would previously work with Russian ships, this is now either undesirable, or even banned due to sanctions. It is also now hard for various reasons to visit the Russian settlements then previously, leaving Svalbard as a kind of grey-zone stand off.
And while we all hope for the best that Cold War Two does not heat up into World War Three, if it does make ni mistake Svalbard will suddenly become more important than a mere country.
Join YPT on our Svalbard tour this June