Spitsbergen was no man ‘s land until the early 20th century. Several nations in northern Europe had occasionally been interested, but not to a degree that made it worthwhile to negotiate the issue seriously. Most were happy to keep the archipelago no man’s land; as long as nobody else achieved control, it was not important enough to raise interest in political circles and to risk disputes with other countries. Most resources such as whales and fishing were rather independent of the actual land area anyway.
Things changed in the late 19th and early 20th century, when mining became the dominating field of economy in Spitsbergen. Suddenly the question of land control became important, especially there was a demand for reliable administration and legislation. Various options were discussed, such as a joint administration of Spitsbergen by its nearest neighbours Norway, Sweden and Russia.
The first world war drew interest away from the arctic. During the peace conferences, the Norwegians could convince other nations to put Spitsbergen under Norwegian souvereignty. This was formally done with the Spitsbergen Treaty, which was signed 1920 in Versailles (the term “Svalbard” was not used until later). In 1925, it came into force. But Spitsbergen did not become a part of Norway just as any other part of the mainland. The treaty defines several frame conditions, such as
- Spitsbergen is under Norwegian administration and legislation.
- Citizens of all signatory nations have free access and the right of economic activities.
- Spitsbergen remains demilitarized. No nation, including Norway, is allowed to station military personell or equipment on Spitsbergen.
In practice, this has not alway been easy. Especially the definition of what is or is not military has been difficult on occasions. In 1975, the opening of the airport near Longyearbyen raised protest of the Sovjet government, which stated that the airport could be used for military purposes. Facilities to launch research rockets have to be removed after every rocket launch. In the Russian settlement Barentsburg, the size of the helicopter fleet and the helipad has at times had a size far beyond the actual needs of a mining settlement and company.
Russia is the only nation next to Norway which makes use of the right of mining. The settlements on both sides suspiciously kept an eye on each other during the cold war, but co-existed peacefully. Today, there are regular official and private contacts, although Barentsburg is now again under the control of near-autocratic ‘apparatshiks’, similar to mainland Russia.